Should Goma be moved wholesale?

February 1, 2002

Scientists are considering an innovative assessment of the hazards posed by Mount Nyiragongo, the Congolese volcano that has devastated the regional capital of Goma.

Expert opinion may determine the future of the stricken city, potentially prompting its complete abandonment.

Peter Baxter, consultant occupational physician at Cambridge University and adviser on volcanic hazards to the British government and the World Health Organisation, believes the situation demands an imaginative response once the immediate crisis is over.

Dr Baxter made a preliminary visit to the region last week as part of an Anglo-French delegation to discuss the scientific groundwork with colleagues. The matter will be raised again during a meeting of top researchers in Paris today.

Over coming months, the scientists will investigate a number of scenarios. One involves the release of suffocating carbon dioxide from the bottom of Lake Kivu, on whose banks Goma is situated. This could be triggered by an eruption under the lake or by hot lava flows disrupting deep convection patterns. A similar disaster killed 1,700 people in Cameroon in 1986.

Another concern is that lava-spewing fractures, already within 2km of Goma, could run right into the city. There might even be an eruption directly beneath the settlement.

On the other hand, Mount Nyiragongo could remain dormant for another 30 years.

"The degree to which these possibilities present real problems needs to be evaluated," Dr Baxter said. "It is too early to say yet whether Goma should be moved or not."

The situation is complicated by the humanitarian crisis that is already blighting the region as a result of civil war, infectious disease and malnutrition.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the eruption and the future of many more will depend on good scientific advice. But the lack of data on the volcano's previous eruptions will hamper risk assessment.

Dr Baxter said a new approach pioneered to advise the British government after the Caribbean island of Montserrat was hit by an eruption in 1996 could be effective. Then, 16 scientists were asked to individually assess 14 scenarios using established principles.

An evaluation of relative optimism or pessimism was used to "calibrate" each expert so their opinions could be combined into an overall assessment of potential casualty levels.

"What we did in Montserrat seemed to point a way forward," Dr Baxter said. "I believe a similar assessment needs to be done at Nyiragongo."

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