Into Earth's Heart: Nyiragongo Volcano in the Congo

According to ancient local myths, Nyiragongo's boiling lava lake is a place where bad souls burn in fire. And bad souls are plenty in this crisis-shaken region of the Kivu: warlords coerced child soldiers to combat, génocidaires from neighbouring Rwanda used the jungle to regroup, rebel forces take hostage, and commodity and mining companies exploit the land.

Mount Nyiragongo has seen more than enough atrocities committed for his geologically young age of twenty millennia – most occurred during the last twenty years.

The volcano sits and watches over Goma, the border town between the Congo and Rwanda. During and after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, a mass exodus of Rwandans to the eastern Congo region provoked the Great Lakes refugee crisis. Tensions between exiled Hutu génocidaires and the new Tutsi regime in Rwanda sparked the First Congo War in 1996. And when Congo's ex-president Kabila, who had ousted dictator Mobutu, turned against his former allies Rwanda and Uganda, and Hutu insurgents supported by extremist eastern Congo rebels destabilized the border region, the Second Congo War followed in 1998-2003. Millions died through disease and starvation, and millions more were displaced. Not coming to rest, in 2004, the Kivu conflict continued between the armed forces of the Congo (FARDC), and armed militia. In 2012, a rebel group termed M23 briefly occupied Goma.

The translation of Nyiragongo's name means which smokes, and indeed the volcano emits thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide every day. The crater holds Earth's largest lava lake. Molten lava's temperature is high enough to burn bad souls, and there is ample space for many of them in Nyiragongo's huge crater.

Glowing steam rises from Nyiragongo volcano (3'470 m) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo at night. In the East is Mount Mikeno (4'437 m), an extinct volcano of the Virunga mountain chain.

The East African Rift: the largest seismically active rift system on Earth

Nyiragongo in numbers
Nyiragongo's crater: 1'200 m wide and 500 m deep
Lava lake dimension: 250 by 270 m
Molten lava's temperature: 900°C
Lava lake surface temperature: 460° to 570°C.

Nyiragongo belongs to the Virunga volcano chain (Virunga is English for the Kinyarwanda word ibirunga, which means volcanoes). Only Nyiragongo and the neighbouring Nyamulagira are active, the remaining six volcanos in the border region of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda are extinct.

The Virunga volcanoes are part of the Albertine Rift Mountains, the western branch of the East African Rift along Lake Albert, Lake Edward/Rutanzige, Lake Kivu, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Rukwa, and Lake Malawi. In the Virunga region, two parts of the African Plate, the Somali Plate and the Nubian Plate, are breaking apart at a rate of 6 to 7 mm annually.

The East African Rift running from the Gulf of Aden in the north to Mozambique in the south is the largest seismically active rift system on Earth today.

Steam rises from the Nyiragongo volcano crater (3470 m) in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There's a sulphuric scent, and from inside the crater come rumbling noises from the erupting lava.

The 2002 Nyiragongo Eruption

Plants overgrow a cave on the slope of Nyiragongo volcano. In the morning of January 17, a fracture opened between the central cone of Nyiragongo and the smaller Shaheru crater at an altitude of 2800 m. Lava, very fluid because of low silicate content, raced down the steep flanks of Nyiragongo to the city of Goma.

Volcanologists at the Goma Volcano Observatory monitor the volcano’s seismic activity but their efforts are hampered by the lack in infrastructure, and vandalism of equipment.

In January 2002, seismic activity was recorded around the volcano with volcanic tremor over several days. Dark smoke and rumbling sounds rose from the crater. A strong sulfuric smell soared.

In the morning of January 17, a fracture opened between the central cone of Nyiragongo and the smaller Shaheru crater at an altitude of 2800 m. Lava fountains erupted – chilled lava nests can still be seen high up in trees. Lava, very fluid because of low silicate content, raced down the steep flanks of Nyiragongo in streams as high as 1.5 m and cut the N2 road from Goma to Rutshuru. Several villages were devastated.

A hole in the ground surrounded by hardened lava is all that remains of a tree after the Nyiragongo eruption of 2002. In the morning of January 17, a fracture opened between the central cone of Nyiragongo and the smaller Shaheru crater at an altitude of 2800 m. Lava, very fluid because of low silicate content, raced down the steep flanks of Nyiragongo to the city of Goma. 170 people died, and 350'000 people fled to neighbouring Rwanda.


In the evening, magma reached the airport, central Goma, and finally lake Kivu. After 12 hours, during the night, lava emission stopped. The eruption buried streets in Goma under lava several meters thick. Methane concentration in the air strongly increased and small explosions occurred all around Goma. 170 people died, and 350'000 people fled to Rwanda.

Glowing steam rises from the Nyiragongo volcano crater in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo at night. The city of Goma is located only few kilometers south of Nyiragongo volcano.

The city of Goma, located 􏰂15 km south of Nyiragongo at Lake Kivu, was only a small town with 50'000 inhabitants when the 1977 Nyiragongo eruption occurred; about 70 people died. At the time of the 2002 eruption about 400'000 people lived in Goma. Today, Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, has a population of 1 million at risk from volcanic eruptions. As Lake Kivu contains large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, volcano eruptions hold the potential of natural disaster. Goma's airport is directly at risk, compromising aid via air.

Eruptions of Nyiragongo occurred in 1832, 1904, 1977 and 2002. On March 23, 2016, newspaper articles titled about a possible imminent eruption as a second vent had formed in the crater, but experts urged calm. When Lake Kivu suddenly turned turquoise from its usual brownish colour in April, new rumours sparked. When will Nyiragongo erupt again?

Dark lava stone characterize the sight of Goma. The city is located 􏰂just 15 km south of Nyiragongo and has a population of 1 million at risk from volcanic eruption.
The city of Goma at Lake Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is located 􏰂just 15 km south of Nyiragongo. As Lake Kivu contains large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, volcano eruptions hold the potential of natural disaster. Goma's airport is directly at risk, compromising aid via air. Volcanologists at the Goma Volcano Observatory monitor the volcano’s seismic activity but their efforts are hampered by the lack in infrastructure, and vandalism of equipment.
The city of Goma is brightly illuminated at night. The capital of North Kivu province has a population of 1 million at risk from volcanic eruptions.

Von Götzen's Historic Nyiragongo Expedition

On the eve of the 19th century, the German explorer Gustav Adolf von Götzen started an expedition across Africa from Tanzania in the East to the mouth of river Congo in the West. The central African region was the last to be explored by European expeditions.

Europe’s industrial revolution had transformed economy to become less dependent on plantation products. Demands changed, explorers were sent to explore Africa – not least to clear the way for industrial exports. Mungo Park, a Scottish physician with an an itch for travel, was sent to explore river Niger and Timbuktoo, and James Kingston Tuckey to the Congo river. Both he and Mungo Park died under way. Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke rivaled to explore the source of the Nile. The Scottish missionary doctor David Livingstone crossed the Kalahari desert and discovered the Zambezi river, Victoria falls, and crossed the continent from Angola to Mozambique by 1856. In 1885 Henry Morton Stanley took possession of the Congo for Belgian King Leopold II to exploit ivory and rubber.

Passing Rwanda, von Götzen met the Rwandan King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri (1855-1895). At that time, the Rwandan kingdom had reached the peak of its power and included Lake Kivu und the Virunga volcanoes in the west. Unimpressed by the king's fair amount of reserve considering to climb the volcano, von Götzen advanced westwards. Far away he saw the volcano illuminate the night sky. Finally, he reached a small village at the foot of the Nyiragongo and wrote: «There he was, the mysterious mountain, claimed by the natives to bring death to everyone daring to climb it.»

Accompanied by his companion Georg von Prittwitz, 18 porters, two local Batwa guides, three armed Askari, a local translator, and several mules, he started to climb the volcano. The equipment included two photo cameras, a theodolite, two barometers, a telescope, axes, rope, tents, blankets, two chairs, dishes, food, and water.

In the evening the men sat around a fire and the porters told their childhood stories. All of them had been abducted from the interior of the country to the coast into slavery.

«There he was, the mysterious mountain, claimed by the natives to bring death to everyone daring to climb it.»

After a few kilometres with dense vegetation, von Götzen reached the saddle between the main crater and the smaller Shaheru crater on the third day. Left alone by his guides and leaving back part of his entourage, von Götzen advanced through the steep rocky moon-like mountain slope.

On June 8, 1894, he starred into the smoking and thundering abyss. After estimating Nyiragongo's altitude at 3'475 m using barometric measurements, and taking photographs, von Götzen passed a horribly cold night at the top without shelter. Gustav Adolf von Götzen later became the Governor of German East Africa.

Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo contains the Earth's largest lava lake (250 x 270 m). Molten lava temperature is around 900° Celsius, while the surface of the lava lake measures around 460 to 570 centigrade.
Glowing steam rises from the Nyiragongo volcano crater in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo at night. The Virunga volcanoes are part of the Albertine Rift Mountains, the western branch of the East African Rift.
Steam rises from the Nyiragongo volcano crater in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Molten lava temperature is around 900° Celsius, while the surface of the lava lake measures around 460 to 570 centigrade.
Steam rises from the Nyiragongo volcano crater in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Molten lava temperature is around 900° Celsius, while the surface of the lava lake measures around 460 to 570 centigrade. Every day the lava lake emits thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, the main content in acid rain.

The Rangers of the Virunga National Park

Today's expeditions are not as difficult as a hundred years ago. The hike to the summit takes five hours – considerably less than in 1894. An entourage is still needed though: two armed rangers escort the tourists, and there are porters and a cook available for hire.

Nyiragongo is part of the Virunga National Park. The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium as the first national park in Africa. Initially, it consisted of a small area around Karisimbi, Mikeno and Visoke volcanoes. In 1929, the park was extended into Rwanda and the then Belgian Congo to include the Rwindi plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon which had already been described by Greek geographer and polymath Ptolemy as mysterious lunae montes, Mountains of the Moon, in AD 150. In the 1960s, the park was divided as Rwanda and Congo gained their independence. Under Mobutu, the Congo part of the park was renamed Virunga National Park in 1969.

The rangers cover a broad spectrum of duties including wildlife and nature conservation, securing the park, preventing poaching, and escorting tourists for the mountain gorilla trecks and Nyiragongo volcano climbs. Over the last years, 150 rangers have been killed in the line of duty – three of them in the first quarter of 2016.

Heavy rain falls as ranger Joseph of the Virunga national park descends Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Joseph, a Virunga national park ranger, climbs the Nyiragongo volcano three times a week. The ascent has a 1500 m elevation gain and takes about five hours.
Huts at the summit of Mount Nyiragongo (3470 m) serve as shelter for overnight hikes.
A Virunga National Park ranger watches the lava glow in Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.