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A degassing jet now helps keep Lake Nyos in Cameroon from exploding again. Photo: <a href="http://mhalb.pagesperso-orange.fr/nyos/">Degassing Nyos</a>
A degassing jet now helps keep Lake Nyos in Cameroon from exploding again. Photo: Degassing Nyos

Natural Selections: Exploding lake

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When local legend in Africa spoke of an exploding lake, western researchers scoffed. They were wrong--Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk about the exploding lake, Lake Nyos.

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Martha Foley: Tell me about this exploding lake? I don’t remember this story, it sounds incredible to me.

Dr. Curt Stager: Well, in 1986 in Cameroon, west Africa, late one night in August, there was a crater lake in the highlands in western Cameroon that basically exploded.

MF: In flame?

CS: No, it was a gas explosion of carbon dioxide gas. It released about a half a cubic kilometer of this stuff all at once in a big foaming eruption and the gas spread out over the countryside and killed about 1700 people, wiped out entire villages, killed all of the livestock, 5000 head of cattle.

MF: It just bubbled out?

CS: Bubbled out in a giant you could say gas explosion. So many people were killed, the area was decimated, and it was a pretty remote area. The word didn’t even get out for more than a day that anything had happened. And when it finally hit the world media, the description was of course going to be “Volcanic Crater Lake in Cameroon Explodes, and Wipes Out Villages,” so the assumption is volcanic eruption. So the teams of scientists from the U.S. and Germany and the other places that went were mostly volcanologists to come in and investigate the thing.

MF: But it wasn’t volcanic eruption, is that what I’m hearing?

CS: Right, exactly. Coincidentally, I had been there with a fellow graduate student from Duke University a year before. We were studying the lakes in Cameroon for other reasons. And we had seen a similar lake that had gas dissolved in the deep waters of the crater lake.

MF: You mean, just like a bottle of seltzer water with the cap on it under pressure.

CS: Exactly, you wouldn’t even see the bubbles, it was exactly like that analogy. That if anything could disturb it, like analogous to taking the lid off, letting the bubbles form, and then all of the gas coming out. So we suspected it was not a volcanic eruption but actually the lake itself releasing the gas.

MF: But why would it release the gas all of a sudden?

CS: Well we will probably never know what really did it, but there were a bunch of things that could happen. If there was a storm let’s say, that stirred the surface, or if it was rainy and dark and cold, the surface water would get cool, and it gets denser and it’ll sink, and that’ll push up bottom water, and the bottom water would have all of this gas in it. When it would come up to the surface, there wouldn’t’ be pressure on it anymore, it’s like taking the lid off of the seltzer water.

MF: So there were a bunch of people living around this lake, and this lake, had it done that before? Or has it done it since? Was this an aberration of sort of the life cycle of this lake?

CS: Well, it looks like it happened before. It definitely happened, at one other lake in the area, two years before. 37 people were killed by that one, but it never made the presses. Then there were so-called myths from the surrounding country side where the ancient traditions talked about exploding lakes and anthropologists heard these and thought “Oh, how quaint. An exploding lake.” Well they’re pretty exact descriptions for at least three of these things in the past.

MF: Is it going to do it again?

CS: Yeah, George Cling is now faculty member at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he’s got an actual program going based out of the biology department there where they’re monitoring this lake and trying to warn people that actually there’s more gas in it now than there was in 1986. It’s just a matter of time.

MF: And people are still living there obviously?

CS: People have moved right back in, it’s kind of fatal. Somebody stocked it with fish now, so more people are coming in to try to make a living off of catching the fish. So it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

MF: But scientists must be really interested in this now because they’ve seen it happen.

CS: Yeah there’s a move of foot to de-gas the lake running pipes in and bubbling stuff out slowly, but that takes a lot of money and planning and it’s hard to get funding for this.

MF: Because it’s not a disaster yet.

CS: It’s not a disaster yet.

MF: It’s interesting, an exploding lake.

 

Note: Since this Natural Selections first aired, a degassing fountain has been constructed in the lake that circulates the lake water to prevent carbon dioxide from building up to "explosive" levels.

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