“I could not speak. I became unconscious. I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible … I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal…. When crossing to my daughter’s bed … I collapsed and fell … I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out…. My daughter was already dead.”
These are the words of Joseph Nkwain, who on August 21, 1986, survived one of the strangest natural disasters in history.
Known locally as “the Bad Lake,” Lake Nyos, located in the Northwest Region of Cameroon, Africa, carried a folklore of danger, and tales were spoken of an evil spirit which emerged from the lake to kill all those who lived near it.
This legend contained the memory of a very real threat.
Lake Nyos was formed in a volcanic crater created as recently as 400 years ago. Crater lakes commonly have high levels of CO2 as they are formed by the volcanic activity happening miles beneath them.
Under normal circumstances this gas is released over time as the lake water turns over.
But Lake Nyos was different: an unusually still lake, with little in the way of environmental agitation. Rather than releasing the gas, the lake was acting as a high-pressure storage unit.
Its deep waters were becoming ever more loaded with gas until more than five gallons of CO2 were dissolved in every gallon of water. Pressurized to the physical limit, Lake Nyos was a time bomb.
On August 21, 1986, something in the lake went off. It is unknown what the trigger was – landslide, small volcanic eruption, or even something as small as cold rain falling on an edge of the lake.
Whatever the cause, the result was catastrophic. In what is known as a Limnic Eruption, the lake literally exploded, sending a fountain of water over 300 feet into the air and creating a small tsunami. But far more deadly than the water was the gas.