The case for an African VAAC 

The morning after. (Photo by Moses Sawasawa / AFP)

Welcome to the “Rant Edition of Volcanocafé”, tonights special: Carl Erupts. 

For a decade I have talked about the need for increased monitoring of African volcanoes. It is if nothing else, rather ridiculous that the volcanoes in Antarctica are far better monitored than African volcanoes bordered by large cities. 

Yesterday this came very close to causing a large disaster with international implications. Let us talk about that from a slightly more personal angle. 

As the eruption started at Nyiragongo yesterday it was news that filled me with quite a bit of trepidation since I have been to Goma several times, and I have a personal history with the airport in question. 

What makes Nyiragongo so dangerous is that the main rift goes towards the city of Goma through the suburbs, that in combination with the unusually fluid lava is a recipe for disaster. Flank eruptions in the area are common, the last one prior to this one was in 2002. 

During the 2002 eruption 245 people died and 120 000 people became homeless. During the eruption the airport was overrun by lava. 

 

2021 Eruption 

Lava crushing houses in Goma. Photograph borrowed from the Guardian.

Yesterday (Saturday) a new similar flank eruption started that quickly enveloped the suburbs, cut the main road to Beni, and overran the airport once again. 

Evacuation orders was quickly issued, but how well that worked is still to be seen as we are still waiting for official numbers of the dead and displaced people. 

 

Goma Volcanic Observatory 

After the 2002 eruption a local volcanic Observatory was opened to monitor the volcano and to try to forecast future eruptions. The observatory was under-staffed with scientists, and lacked needed equipment beyond the most rudimentary. 

Still, it was as well run as possible, and did what they could to keep everyone safe in the area. In 2020 the World Bank pulled out, and that left the Observatory even more strapped for cash. 

Leaving a very unusual set of dangerous volcanoes under-monitored and under-funded, and that is bordering large cities, is bad to begin with, but pulling the funding believing that a war-torn and broken-down country can carry the burden on its own is just another way to say, “we don’t give a shit if you die”. 

I am so mad that I am farting flames. We are talking about potentially tens of thousands of lives that could be saved by a very small amount of money. 

 

The Airport 

Goma International Airport 2002 Eruption. Photograph by Guido Potters.

As soon as I heard the news I was thrown back in time, my nostrils filled with the memory of the scents from the tarmac and the surrounding vegetation at night. I remembered the stars shining above my head, and all the lovely local people that I met there. 

I remembered this in 2002 when I heard the news of the airport having been overrun, and I later returned and saw the airport tarmac being covered in lava where I had stood 2 years earlier. 

As I flew in a couple of more times in the intervening years, I saw how the airstrip was slowly restored from the lava, and what it took for the poor province to make the airport be what it once was. 

Yesterday those memories came back, but now I have a new memory. A memory I did not expect to have, and that I did not want to have. 

I got asked by two different pilots for information if it was safe to land in Goma. They did not ask for themselves, but they asked for colleagues enroute to Goma. The reason was simple, Toulouse VAAC that is responsible for issuing a VONA, the ash advisories, had not done their job. 

Here’s the thing. Yes, I am a geophysicist. Yes, I sort of part-time work with volcanoes, and yes, I do like to dabble with forecasting volcanic eruption and jabber about it on Volcanocafé. I am even pretty good at it. 

Normally this is done against a backdrop of professional agencies like the Icelandic Met Office, INGV, OVSICORI, Phivolcsor the Indonesian authorities (that are really kick arse good). And I am always careful in stating that they are the final word on things. 

Because it is one thing being a professional armchair volcanologist, and sitting in the hot seat of an agency when the shit hits the fan. I have never wanted to do that, and I have the utmost respect for my friends who do it. 

Yesterday my arse got planted in that hot seat. I had basically to on the fly come up with a safety instruction for pilots flying into Goma due to the lack of Toulouse VAAC ash advisories. 

All I could give them was generalized bullshit safety advice based on going around the volcano at distance and do visual inspection of the runway before attempting to land. I hated doing it, and thankfully the local airport authority closed the place down shortly thereafter. 

Hours later Toulouse VAAC issued an ash advisory, but by then the airport was overrun by lava and the eruption was winding down. 

 

Conclusion 

Goma International Airport with Nyiragongo in the background. Photograph by Alexei Shevelev.

Professional pilots should not have to turn to armchair volcanologists for this. I guess that I was the best bet, and I am sort of thankful for the questions, but still… yesterday there was lives on the line in airplanes flying into Goma. 

First of all, there must be more money made available for monitoring of African volcanoes. In this day and age there is just one single entity with the available money, and at least a moderate will to do it, and that is the European Union. 

So, if you are of the European persuasion, I urge you to write to your Parliamentarian and tell them to get going on the cheque writing thing.  

If you are not a European, I urge you to write and make a fuss anyway, all things will be an improvement. 

And last, but not least, if you are contemplating making your way into volcanology, or you are about to start your Ph.D. studies, pick an African volcanology and do your studies on it. The world does not need yet another pointless paper on Yellowstone et Ilk, it needs research on the volcanoes in Africa, and God only knows that there are monsters to study there aplenty. 

Anyway, Africa needs a pan-African VAAC to issue VONAs, it needs a good backbone of Volcanic Observatories, at least for the more dangerous volcanoes (yes, I can provide a list) and it bloody well needed it yesterday. 

CARL “GRUMPY” REHNBERG 

366 thoughts on “The case for an African VAAC 

    • Perhaps it was a rifting event that drained the lava lake … and not the high pressure of the magma column after all

      These cracks and earthquakes looks like rifting to me

      • That sounds more plausible since the earthquakes are over a very large area. BUT, they are still being called volcanic earthquakes, shouldn’t they be tectonic if it was rifting ?

        • The positions of the earthquakes seem very uncertain. And note that USGS was off even in Iceland by 10-20 km. They located the pre-eruption earthquakes in the bay in front of Reykjavik.

      • Probably there is tectonic rifting that allows the flank eruption to happen, creating the fractures.

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