Studying the World’s Largest Lava Lake

Trip Reports
July 18, 2017

We first met Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, geophysics professor at Boise State University, during a research expedition to South America to create a 3D model of the Villarricca volcano. On his latest expedition, Dr. Johnson went to Africa for three weeks to study the lava lake inside the volcano Nyiragongo.

The journey to Nyiragongo is complicated. It’s a mile-high climb to the 11,000 foot summit, and it took 500 porter loads to get the gear we needed to the volcano.

A team of five, the core science crew included four Belgian researchers with plenty of experience at Nyiragongo and me, a neophyte to this volcano. Despite their experience at Nyiragongo, the Belgian scientists had never camped in the crater. In fact, few climbers have ever reached the location where we camped. Entrance to and escape from our camp was via a steep, loose climb on a system of fixed ropes.

Dr. Jeffrey Johnson descends from the crater rim to camp. Pictured in Jetstream Jacket

We set up camp a thousand feet below the crater rim and perched above the roaring void of the world’s largest lava lake. We had five nights to take measurements and observe the dynamics of this boiling lava sea, 800-feet wide and about the dimension of the world’s largest sports stadium.

Conditions were harsh, surreal, beautiful, remote, and eerie.

Perched above lava lake, Dr. Jeffrey Johnson monitors data

Our goal was to measure changes in the relative height of the lava lake and correlate its position with seismic and sound observations, as well as thermal and gas flux detected with specialized cameras. Interpreting these signals during our short study allows us to better monitor the volcano remotely long term.

We left sensors behind, which continue to “listen” to the volcano and feed information to us. By listening to volcanoes with specialized monitors, we can try to predict when they’ll change their activity, which can lead to an eruption. We hope research like this will not only help the people who live around Nyiragongo, but residents who live around volcanoes around the world, including Mt. Rainier, Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes in the Northwest United States.

Learn more about Dr. Johnson’s research at Nyiragongo.