Human civilizations have frequently found themselves congregated around water sources. Proximity to bodies of water means easier access to drinking water, irrigation, hygiene, etc. Because of all the services that freshwater bodies provide, you’d typically regard these bodies as likely a ‘good’, sort of benevolent aspect of the natural world. But in one area of the world - in the Cameroon Grassfields - lakes have historically had a pretty bad rap...and for good reason.
Indigenously classified as ‘bad’ lakes, the folklore of some lakes in this region told ominous tales of fatal, exploding lakes. Bodies of water here are where the death dwelt. Lake Nyos, in the northwest region of Cameroon, is one of the lakes that bears the title of a ‘maleficent’ water body, capable of producing harm (Shanklin 1989).
The legend went that every couple of years, evil spirits would emerge from the lake to take the lives of those around it. As it is for many myths and legends, there’s some truth to this tale. In 1986, Lake Nyos erupted - not ash, or lava, but a suffocating concentration of invisible gas in an event called a limnic eruption.
In this episode we’re recounting the historical limnic eruption at Lake Nyos, explaining what it is and the steps being taken to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
The original legend of Lake Nyos and the evil spirits that haunted the valley was grounded in geomythology - when cultures craft a myth to explain geologic events, especially catastrophes (volcanic eruptions, meteor impact, etc.).
Scientific awareness of geologic events can keep such folklore as merely a legend, preventing the cyclical disasters from wreaking havoc again.
If you'd like to read more about limnic eruptions, here is an open access (read: free) journal article to check out by Halbwachs et al. 2004.
Special thanks to Dmitri Rouwet for answering questions in regards to all things volcanic lakes.
References for this episode:
Le Guern, F., E. Shanklin, and S. Tebor. "Witness accounts of the catastrophic event of August 1986 at Lake Nyos (Cameroon)." Journal of volcanology and geothermal research 51.1-2 (1992): 171-184.
Shanklin, Eugenia. "Exploding lakes and maleficent water in Grassfields legends and myth." Journal of volcanology and geothermal research 39.2-3 (1989): 233-24