Lake Nyos Tragedy: A Deadly Demonic Fog in Cameroon
On August 21, 1986, in northwestern Cameroon, a massive froth shot up into the sky from the waters of Lake Nyos, followed by a thick ghostly fog which covered the surrounding landscape. In an instant, 1746 residents of the nearby villages of Nyos and Cha were killed. Hundreds toppled to the ground over fires, uneaten dinners, and dirt roads. Those who collapsed unconscious suffocated in their immobile state. Those who awoke and emerged from this asphyxiating catastrophic event found their family members dead, sprawled across household floors, beds, and porches.
Those whose lives were spared, buried their dead and then made their way to refugee camps being set up by the Cameroon Government who had received word within a few hours of the incident and were in the process of evacuating 4,000 villagers who lived in the region. But, not all the survivors were able to bury their dead. Overwhelmed by their loss, some of the survivors committed suicide shortly after seeing the atrocities brought forth from an angry lake. In the weeks to come, soldiers performed the unenviable task of placing the dead into mass graves.
Although many people died that evening, a significant number of villagers who lived in higher elevations were spared for reasons only known to Lake Nyos. What was the cause of this mysterious tragedy? Was it the powerful lake sending out evil vapor demons in retaliation for disrespect of its sacred waters? Could it have been an act of terrorism by chemical warfare? Or, can science unravel the clues and find a definitive answer?
Who would imagine that the calm brown waters of Lake Nyos could hide such a terrible secret? ( Fabian / Adobe Stock)
What Happened at Lake Nyos in 1986?
Silence descended for the first 36 hours after the Nyos Lake eruption at 10 p.m. on that fateful night in 1986. Most people along the shore experienced a nauseous smell resembling putrid eggs and gun powder, followed by shortness of breath and, finally, passing out. For most of the cattle, everything occurred in an instant. Though this event took the lives of 1746 people, a few eyewitnesses who lived in the high grounds near the lake, survived and shared accounts of the horrors that occurred. One anonymous account mentioned the emergence of a large demonic froth that shot up with intense fury, causing an acidic wave which dissolved any plant life that was in its way.
The thick ghostly fog made its way 25 kilometers (15.53 miles) inland, taking the unsuspecting lives of many. Those living farthest from the epicenter mentioned first smelling something foul, and then seeing a thick gaseous entity engulfing farmhouses and buildings along the way. The survivors who later awoke, felt that the lake had judged them and bid them worthy of living. But the question remained, why was this the case?
What caused the tragic events surrounding Lake Nyos? In the image, one of the suffocated cows that the authorities discovered the next day. (United States Geological Survey / Public Domain )
Oral History and Myths of Lake Nyos
Many scholars, such as Eby and Evans (2006), have discussed the many beliefs and traditions of peoples inhabiting the Lake Nyos region of Cameroon in Africa. Cameroon's northwest region is home to almost 250 indigenous ethnic groups with various religions ranging from Islam, Christianity, and countless other faiths. With such incredible diversity, certain subject matter remains consistent in their oral myths, especially when it comes to Lake Nyos. One large theme that is emphasized by Eby and Evans is the concept of good and evil water, exploding lakes, and evil bodies of water transferring from one place to another.
Many other lake myths within Cameroon also exist, which depict evil white mist spirits emerging from the lake to consume the souls of the unsuspecting. In other stories, the crater lake sends mosquito messengers in its rage to curse people who dare attempt to part or cross the waters, engulfing them in mystical waves or putting them to sleep using evil vapor demons. What remains intriguing about these local myths is the common recurrence of these evil spirits over many years, potentially alluding to continually occurring events.
Krajick (2003) mentions that local Cameroon mythology attests to crater lakes carrying the spirits of ancestors and having the power to bring fury to those who disrespect the lake. These beliefs indicate an awareness among Nyos inhabitants regarding the dangers of the lake. As documented by anthropologist Eugenia Shanklin, other accounts describe the mercurial nature of the rising, receding and the exploding turbulence endured. Many of the oral myths conclude that inhabitants would fare better if they lived in the higher ground instead of right next to Lake Nyos.
Many of these cultural groups were taught at a young age never to cross through the lake, but others went against the collective warning passed down through the generations by their elders and chose to settle closer to the banks of the legendary lake. The tragedy which occurred on August 21st, 1986, revealed the deathly consequences to their actions. Between 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., the event claimed hundreds of human lives, and the death toll amongst livestock, birds, and insects numbered the thousands. Folklore had warned of these events, but what does western science make of the incident?
There are many myths and folk stories surrounding the crater lakes of Cameroon. ( United States Geological Survey / Public Domain)
Could the Lake Nyos Tragedy Have Been Part of a Terrorist Plot?
Throughout Cameroon's diverse region, there is a commonality to their lake myths . But there is also another potential suspect. With tensions rising in the region, the Cameroon Government of the time was significantly preoccupied by the potential for acts of terrorism. During the 1980s, political unrest was rife during the complex hand over from Ahidjo to Paul Biya as Prime Minister of Cameroon. In 1984, a minor political coup by the Republican Guard was attempted aiming to return Ahidjo into office.
Though Ahidjo was eventually tried for his crimes, the stigma of a potential uprising forced Biya to compromise his wishes for democracy and he reinstated the government's harsher authoritarian methods. Further growing conflicts occurred due to the country's economic troubles, as well as growing tensions between the English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroonians. With such turmoil, there was fear that terrorist movements would attempt to take Biya out of office. Needless to say, the growing fear of terrorism was at the forefront of public consciousness at the time of the dramatic events. However, in the case of Lake Nyos, the cause of the tragedy was something else entirely.
Lake Nyos in 1986, a month after the tragedy. (United States Geological Survey / Public domain )
Lake Nyos Tragedy Hits the Headlines
When the Lake Nyos tragedy occurred, the Cameroon police and military commandeered as many trucks as possible in anticipation of massive casualties. As they arrived by Nyos and Cha, they were ordered to go house by house and find as many survivors as possible. To their dismay, the military found more corpses than survivors. In the days to come, both villages had become a dismal sight of empty houses whose front lawns had become burial sites for 25 or more people. In itself, this act went contrary to the local burial customs of certain ethnic groups in the region. Soon after, the international media began to report on what had occurred.
Many reports mention that the events surrounding the Lake Nyos tragedy began with three violent explosions which created smoky clouds of white mist accompanied by a tsunami-like wave hitting its southern shore. The wave itself damaged the local vegetation, while the suffocating fog of death descended upon the unfortunate bystanders present that evening. The few fortunate survivors reported smelling intense sulfur, feeling a burning in the eyes, and a tightening the chest. Within days, an international effort was made by a plethora of scientists to aid the Cameroon government in investigating what had caused the eruptions.
Science in Action: Making Sense of the Lake Nyos Tragedy
Taken aback from the bloated carnage in front of them, the team of scientists went to work in unraveling the deadly secrets of Lake Nyos. They already knew that the lake was actually a dormant volcano. The first hypothesis was that it had erupted multiple times within an hour and thus produced intense amounts of deadly fumes. However, the events that had occurred resembled those from the nearby Lake Monoun incident which took place on August 15th, 1984, resulting in the death of 37 people. The scientists feared that these eruptions might become far more frequent as time went on.
After months of examination and research, scientists revealed how the eruption had happened. Within the 208-meter depths (682 ft) of Lake Nyos rested a porous deposit of ancient volcanic boulders and ash. Within the remnants of past eruptions, large pockets of carbon dioxide created by magma were trapped until underwater springs freed the gas which emerged into the lake's water. The immense pressure caused by cubic tons of lake water then forced the carbon dioxide into a massive collection of bubbles.
When the release of 1.6 million tons of concentrated carbon dioxide bubbles ascended from the lake, it created a gaseous haze of white that ascended 99.8 kilometer (62 mi) per hour and then descended upon the southern shore. The thick fog pushed out the breathable air and suffocated all who existed within its 25-kilometer (15.53 mi) kill zone radius. The evidence revealed itself through the reddish-brown discoloration perceived in the lake and foam present along a 25 meter (82 ft) stretch of the southern shore.
Using Science to Take the Gas Out of Local Legend
The solution reached by many of the international scientists was to create a degassing network of tubes to be installed throughout the lake. Working in a similar fashion as the use of dynamite in avalanche prevention, or controlled burning to prevent brushfires, the design used smaller controlled emissions of carbon dioxide from the bottom of the lake to avoid future disasters.
The degassing system was installed in 2001 and successfully reduced the risk of another disaster cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide. Although many of the precautions are now in place, scientists from all over the world continually return for further studies on Lake Nyos in the hope of preventing similar eruptions from happening in other crater lakes around the world.
International scientists came to Lake Nyos to try to discover definitively what had happened. They ended up proposing a degassing network to control the emissions of carbon dioxide from the bottom of the crater lake. (United States Geological Survey / Public domain)
Learning from Experience
Though it seemed that the mystery of the Lake Nyos catastrophe had been solved, the potential of another crater lake disaster was ripe. After all, only two years beforehand, a similar eruption event occurred in Lake Monoun, just 99.8 kilometer (62 miles) southeast of Nyos. It was reported that 37 people from the village of Nijindoun who were walking down the dirt roads entered a thick fog, collapsed, and died, leaving behind a conundrum for doctors and police who arrived a few hours later. At first, the Cameroonian government worried about terrorism through chemical warfare, but it was soon proven natural.
With a history of common occurrences amongst the crater lakes of Cameroon, countries around the world with similar crater lakes became concerned. One example was Lake Kivu in Rwanda, a lake twice as deep and with the potential to carry more dormant gas. Additionally, Lake Kivu carries many methane excreting bacteria that could make Kivu's eventual eruption far worse than the events experienced in Nyos and Monoun combined. Because of this, efforts have been made to monitor the Lake Kivu degassing network.
Aftermath of the Lake Nyos Tragedy
In February of 1987, a team of multi-disciplinary researchers spent fifteen days assessing the socio-economic impact of the Lake Nyos disaster , and the subsequent forceful evacuation of surviving inhabitants of the region by the Camaroon authorities. The result revealed over 3,000 farmers and cattle rearers hoping to resettle Nyos and Cha. Most of the relocated villagers were housed in tent refugee camps placed around the edges of Lake Nyos.
During the disaster, over 8,000 livestock had perished, half of which were cattle. With 1788 people dead, and 55% of the livestock gone, the researchers worried that there would be a lack of farming jobs available. As mentioned by Shanklin (1988), the researchers recommended that the local roads be upgraded and that former cattle rearers be taught farming techniques to accommodate for livestock loss.
With the events that had occurred, life in Cameroon moved on. Further researchers continued to monitor the lake, and eventually 40% of the survivors were relocated back to the area. Though it seemed that life returned to normal in Cameroon, harder times were to come in the form of social unrest, growing terrorist movements, economic collapse, and crimes against humanity.
In 2019, terrorist activity involving ISIS-WA and the Islamist group Boko Haram was responsible for 100 attacks carried out in northern Cameroon resulting in several civilians being killed. The conflict between the government under Prime Minister Paul Biya and the terrorist organization has resulted in thousands of deaths and the displacement of 300,000 people. As this conflict continues, many villagers have formed militia groups to protect themselves. In the end, perhaps the Lake Nyos tragedy foretold of hardships to come for Cameroon.
Top image: What was the cause of the Lake Nyos tragedy which left almost 2000 people dead? Did the spirit of the lake send out evil vapor demons in retaliation for disrespect of its sacred waters? Or, can science unravel the clues and help us understand the mystery? Source: United States Geological Survey / Public domain
By B.B. Wagner
Bressan, David. August 21 2019. “The Deadly Cloud At Lake Nyos” in Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2019/08/21/the-deadly-cloud-at-lake-nyos/#4cb9e0015dbf
Eby, G. Neelson, and William C Evans. 2006. "Taming the killer lakes of Cameroon." Geology Today 22 (1): 18-23. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Krajick, Kevin. September 2003. “Defusing Africa's Killer Lakes” in Smithsonian Magazine . Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/defusing-africas-killer-lakes-88765263/
Roth, Kenneth. 2019. “Cameron, the events of 2019” in Human Rights Watch . Available at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/cameroon
Shanklin, Eugenia. 1988. "Beautiful Deadly Lake Nyos: The Explosion and its Aftermath" in Anthropology Today 4 (1): 12-14.
Tchindjang, Mesmin. August 21 2018. “Lake Nyos, a Multirisk and Vulnerability Appraisal” in Geosciences, 8, 312.
Tiodjio, Rosine E. et. al. 2014. "Bacterial and Archaeal communities in Lake Nyos" in Nature Magazine, 1-10. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep06151