The Fatal Fart

In case of fart...

We in comfortably well-off, temperate countries plagued by nothing more onerous than a semi-militant Meerkat uprising, are used to hearing tales of woe from the continent of our most ancient forbears. Alas, Africa is more in the news for civil wars, drought and famine than for any cause worth celebrating. Indeed, being in peril of one’s life seems to be a precondition of life in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sadly, a new menace has arisen to threaten the peaceful population of a heavily populated region: death by fart.

Some time ago, our favorite website, DamnInteresting, covered the disaster at Nyos in some detail:

In each case, volcanic vents on the lake bottoms slowly allowed carbon dioxide to seep into the water, which absorbed the gas over a period of years. When the water became oversaturated, the lakes released the gas in a chain-reaction eruption, and created a dense, invisible cloud tens of meters in height. The huge blanket of CO2, which is heavier than oxygen, flowed down into low-lying valleys and asphyxiated all who dwelled there. The 1984 event took 37 lives, and the 1986 event killed almost 1800 people. The normally clear lakes turned rust-colored, and the vegetation on the lake shores was severely disturbed by the waves and strong winds of the eruptions.

Not good. Now we’re looking at Lake Kivu, with a surrounding population of 2 million people, in much the same situation. The prognosis is not good, even if you leave aside the indignity of essentially getting suffocated by the farts of a large inanimate object.

Lake Kivu… is more than 3,000 times the size of Nyos and contains more than 350 times as much gas. More worrying is the fact that the shores of Kivu are much more heavily populated. About two million people live there, including the 250,000 citizens of the city of Goma.Mount Nyiragongo, near Goma, erupted in 2002 and lava streamed from it into Lake Kivu for several days. On this occasion there was no disturbance of the lake’s deep layers of gas and no deadly outpouring of carbon dioxide or methane. However, Kling has warned – in the journal Nature this month – that in the event of another eruption the region may not be so lucky again.

Indeed, the impact would dwarf the disaster that struck Nyos. “Kivu is basically the nasty big brother of Nyos,” Kling told Nature.

Nyot encouraging, you would think. And you would be right, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s money in that thar methane.

…engineers are trying to tap Kivu’s rich supplies of methane – by lowering pipes from floating platforms down to its holding layers and siphoning off the gas. This could then be burnt and used as a source of industrial and domestic energy.

Several projects have been established, though only one is currently generating electricity – albeit sporadically – for the Rwandan grid. Another platform sank last year shortly before it was scheduled to begin production.

Tapping Kivu’s methane could, theoretically, reduce the risk of a deadly eruption, say engineers. However, scientists have also warned that tampering with the lake’s gases also carries a risk of triggering a disaster.

So, you could be suffocated by CO2 lakefarts as you go about your business, you could get rich of slowly tapped methane lake farts, or you could die in an enormous fireball the likes of which the Earth has never seen.

That blows.

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