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Living with the Virunga Volcanoes
Image of an enlargement, from the March 1975 MSS 3-2-1 image of western members of the Virunga chain, is specifically stretched to show lava flows around the volcanoes. This image links to a more detailed image.Nyiragongo in Eruption (download TIFF) This enlargement, from the March 1975 MSS 3-2-1 image of western members of the Virunga chain, is specifically stretched to show lava flows around the volcanoes. The plume is coming from the main crater of the volcano Nyiragongo. The large crater to the northwest is the volcano Nyamlagira. Both of these volcanoes have erupted many times during this century. Nyamlagira has erupted more than 30 times in the last 100 years, with recent eruptions occurring in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1989, and summer of 1994. Lava flows, seen in the image, originate from the central crater and the lower slopes, flowing in almost all directions. Fresh flows do not yet have much vegetation on them.

Nyiragongo had a lava lake in the central crater from 1927 through 1977, when an enormous flank eruption emptied the lake. Lava flowed at speeds of 64 kph (40 mph) southeast toward the towns of Goma and Gisenyi (gray-green spots on lower right shore of Lake Kivu), stopping just short of the Goma Airport. Seventy people died in that eruption. This image shows the volcano while the lava lake was still intact. Recent eruptions occurred in 1983 and in the summer of 1994.

Nyiragongo and Nyamlagira are the active members of the Virunga chain, while the others are dormant. Gorillas live on the slopes of the dormant volcanoes, but not on the slopes of the two active volcanoes. People, on the other hand, live and farm on the very slopes of the active ones. Comparing the Virunga political map with the satellite image shows that several refugee camps are located on the slopes of Nyiragongo. The 1994 eruption occurred at the same time the camps were forming.

Image of a 1975 MSS image with lava flows.  This image links to a more detailed image. Photo:Courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Copyright California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. All rights reserved. Based on government-sponsored research under contract NAS7-1260.

If you carefully compare the 1975 MSS image with the 1994 radar image, you will be able to find lava flows in the radar image that formed after the MSS image was taken. Constant eruptions of Nyiragongo and Nyamlagira make life around them precarious, yet people continue to live nearby because of the richness of the volcanic soils that cover the slopes and valleys between the volcanoes.

Detailed information about the radar image, the instrument that took it, and the Shuttle missions on which the instrument flew can be found at the JPL Imaging Radar home page.

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