A Brief History
On August 21, 1986, a volcano in Cameroon hidden beneath Lake Nyos erupted and released a mass quantity of carbon dioxide gas, suffocating and killing nearly 1800 and 3500 of their farm animals. (When we say “mass quantity,” we mean 100,000 to 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide, or maybe as much as well over a million tons!) Although unusual, this horrible disaster is not unique, as 2 other lakes in Africa have a similar situation where volcanic carbon dioxide exists in enormous quantities, potentially causing a similar disaster. Those other 2 lakes are Lake Kivu on the border of Rwanda and the Congo, and Lake Monoun, which is also in Cameroon.
Volcanic activity has plagued humans throughout history, killing people and destroying their property by enormous clouds of volcanic ash, earthquakes, lava flows and the release of toxic gasses. Until modern times, predicting when a disaster such as the Lake Nyos tragedy was impossible, unless of course you believed in seers and oracles! Even today, volcanic activity can take people by surprise and other lakes in the world have been known to cough up deadly toxic clouds of gas, killing local people and animals. Historic volcanic event disasters include such memorable events as Krakatoa, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Vesuvius (Pompeii), and Mt. Pinatubo. Other lakes with notable dangers associated to volcanic events include Boiling Lake on the island of Dominica, a Caribbean island country. Boiling Lake is so called because the volcanic activity beneath the water is bubbling hot! A similar lake is Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand, which is even hotter (140 degrees Fahrenheit) than Boiling Lake. Horseshoe Lake in California sits on volcanic toxic gasses that it slowly releases that are toxic to nearby plant life, as a 1989 event demonstrated in major fashion.
In 1984, Lake Monoun experienced an event similar to the Lake Nyos disaster of 1986, in which a volcanic event caused a sunken area to form in the ground, which filled with carbon dioxide released from under the lake. When villagers went to see what was going on, they were overcome by the deadly gas and 37 of them died. The potential for an even bigger disaster resides under Lake Kivu, with as many as 2 million people living in the possible kill zone of a major carbon dioxide release! Odds are that other such lakes exist that scientists have not yet identified, perhaps for people to find out about the hard way when a disaster occurs!
At Lake Nyos, local authorities have not sat by idly waiting for another disaster. Preventative measures have been taken to vent carbon dioxide slowly through a pipe system to prevent a large release that can have deadly consequences. Despite additional tubes inserted into the lake bottom, the fragile nature of the lake wall itself leaves it prone to a future disaster when that natural levee gives way due to seismic or volcanic activity. Such an event would have unprecedented catastrophic ramifications, with many thousands of people possibly killed for scores of miles around.
The Earth is the home planet of human beings and as far as we know, it the most hospitable place in the Universe for us folks. Still, there are many ways the Earth and “nature” can kill us, sometimes quite suddenly and on a grand scale. Our relationship with our planet is one that should be respectful but certainly with a large dose of caution.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other lakes are you aware of that pose great risk to humans? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Aghaindum, AG. Eco-autopsy of the lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon: 30 Years After Calamity. Editions L’Harmattan, 2017.
Bang, Henry. 30 Years After the Lake Nyos Disaster: What Prospects for Rehabilitation and Reintegration in the Region? Book Venture Publishing,2016.
The featured image in this article, two photographs combined to create semi-panoramic view of Lake Nyos, taken on August 29, 1986, less than a month after the major Limnic eruption, is in the public domain in the United States because it only contains materials that originally came from the United States Geological Survey, an agency of the United States Department of the Interior. For more information, see the official USGS copyright policy.