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13.1: Prelude - Tragedy in Cameroon

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  • Lake Nyos is a crater lake in the Northwest Region of Cameroon, and is a deep lake high on the flank of an inactive volcano in the Oku volcanic plain along the Cameroon line of volcanic activity. A volcanic dam impounds the lake waters. A pocket of magma lies beneath the lake and leaks carbon dioxide (\(CO_2\)) into the water, changing it into carbonic acid. Nyos is one of only three known exploding lakes to be saturated with carbon dioxide in this way.

    In 1986, more than 1700 people in Cameroon were killed when a cloud of gas, almost certainly carbon dioxide, bubbled from Lake Nyos (Figure 13.1.1), a deep lake in a volcanic crater. It is believed that the lake underwent a turnover due to gradual heating from below the lake, and the warmer, less-dense water saturated with carbon dioxide reached the surface. Consequently, tremendous quantities of dissolved CO2 were released, and the colorless gas, which is denser than air, flowed down the valley below the lake and suffocated humans and animals living in the valley.

    Two photos are shown. The first is an aerial view of a lake surrounded by green hills. The second shows a large body of water with a fountain sending liquid up into the air several yards or meters above the surface of the water.

    Figure 13.1.1: (a) It is believed that the 1986 disaster that killed more than 1700 people near Lake Nyos in Cameroon resulted when a large volume of carbon dioxide gas was released from the lake. (b) A CO2 vent has since been installed to help outgas the lake in a slow, controlled fashion and prevent a similar catastrophe from happening in the future. (credit a: modification of work by Jack Lockwood; credit b: modification of work by Bill Evans)

    Following the Lake Nyos tragedy, scientists investigated other African lakes to see if a similar phenomenon could happen elsewhere. Lake Kivu in Democratic Republic of Congo, 2,000 times larger than Lake Nyos, was also found to be supersaturated, and geologists found evidence for outgassing events around the lake about every thousand years.

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