The event that occurred in 1986 at Lake Nyos in Cameroon stands as one of the most enigmatic and lethal natural disasters of the 20th century. In a matter of minutes, life around this body of water vanished in an instant, leaving behind a mystery that continues to perplex researchers to this day.
Death at Lake Nyos
On the night of August 21, 1986, a deafening roar echoed throughout the surroundings of Lake Nyos. It was a deep and almost infinite sound, described by some survivors as the “cry of many voices.” This night marked the beginning of a horror that would claim the lives of countless living beings and leave an indelible mark on history.
Lake Nyos, located in the northwest of Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria, seemed like an idyllic paradise surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation. In an alarmingly short period of time, around 1,746 people and nearly 8,000 animals, including cows, chickens, goats, and horses, perished from suffocation. The lake, once a mirror of crystal-clear water, turned into an opaque reddish hue. Accounts from those who survived the tragedy paint a devastating picture: bodies strewn through the streets, lifeless animals, and an absolute silence that seemed to crush the air.
Among the accounts of the few survivors is that of Ifrain Che, who highlighted the brutality of the catastrophe. He recalls how the night before, he had sensed a strange noise and dense air before going to bed. Upon waking up, the world he knew had disappeared, replaced by a landscape of death and destruction. Ifrain encountered heart-wrenching scenes, with deceased neighbors and family members, including his parents and siblings.
The disaster was so colossal that the President of Cameroon at the time, Paul Biya, requested international aid. Within days, teams of scientists arrived at the scene to investigate, but there was nothing to indicate such a catastrophe. There were no signs of floods, heavy rains, or earthquakes, and the huts and buildings were intact. What had happened then?
An Unprecedented Event
Lake Nyos is occupied by the crater of a volcano near Mount Oku, and it is there that the disaster began.
It turns out that this place is one of the 29 maars, wide and shallow volcanic craters, generated by the explosion caused by groundwater mixing with lava or magma.
Experts believed that the volcano had erupted, emitting a lethal gas. However, after months of investigation, they concluded that it was something much deadlier, something that had been considered a myth until then: a limnic eruption.
Nyos, being a volcanic lake, harbors gases beneath its surface that dissolve in the water. Due to its volcanic nature, the lake produces CO2 that accumulates in the lower layers due to temperature and density differences. What triggered it is still unknown, but the saturation of CO2 in the water exceeded its retention capacity and suddenly released a lethal explosion on the lake’s surface. This CO2 cloud asphyxiated everything in its path.
A Painless Death
The tragedy was excessively swift. A toxic cloud over 50 meters thick spread rapidly, leaving behind a trail of “sweet death” as it caused neither pain nor suffering.
Despite the investigations that were carried out, many questions remain unanswered. While the general causes of the limnic eruption were identified, the event remains a combination of mystery and tragedy.
Lake Nyos stands as a haunting reminder of the hidden mysteries in nature, a warning of the dangers that can arise from deep within the earth.
Over time, the story of Lake Nyos has evolved from being a myth to becoming a painful reality, reminding us of the fragility of life in the face of the natural forces on our planet. Its mystery and tragedy endure, a narrative that has left an indelible mark on history and in the minds of those who know it.