Lake Nyos Once Claimed More Than 1,700 Lives In A Single Night

by : Niamh Shackleton on : 24 Mar 2021 14:16
Lake Nyos Once Claimed More Than 1,700 Lives In A Single NightUS Geological Survey

Lake Nyos once took more 1,700 people’s lives in one night; more than 20 years later, the incident is still described as one of history’s most bizarre natural disasters.

In August 1986, over the course of one single night, 1,746 people living near the large lake lost their lives alongside thousands of cattle.


Lake Nyos, in Cameroon, is a crater lake and sits on top of an inactive volcano in the Oku volcanic plain.

Initially, it wasn’t glaringly obviously was caused the deaths, leading people to create their own theories ranging from spirits to a chemical attack conducted by the government.

Lake NyosWikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

However, a volcanologist was sent to investigate the matter and managed to piece together the tragic puzzle.


The volcanologist took a water sample from the lake using a bottle, but the water caused the lid to pop off. This indicated the lake’s water was filled with dissolved carbon dioxide.

A year later, a comprehensive review of the tragedy was published that blamed the disaster on a limnic eruption, which causes a sudden release of carbon dioxide.

Around 100,000–300,000 tons of the gas then spilled over the northern lip of the lake into the valley where hundreds of the victims and animals lived. The worst affected villages were Cha, Nyos, and Subum.

But where did the gas come from? According to IFL Science, the active volcanic system Lake Nyos sits on has magmatic reservoirs that contain carbon dioxide. This is a common feature of magmatic reservoirs.

jbdodane/Flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

As the magma experiences less pressure near the surface, this usually allows the carbon dioxide to escape from the partly molten mass and into the surface. If there’s a lake there, the gas will seep into it and will leak out of the water overtime without any issues.

However, this wasn’t the case with the 1986 disaster, and instead of releasing at a slow, safe rate, the gas was release en masse, which displaced the surrounding air. This ultimately caused 1,746 people to suffocate, some of whom were reportedly still asleep the time.

To this day, it’s still debated what caused the large amount of carbon dioxide to be released so quickly.


While conclusions are still yet to be drawn nearly three decades later, changes have since been made to the lake to prevent another similar disaster happening again. Cameroon’s authorities installed a degassing system in the lake, as well as a solar-powered warning system, IFL Science reports.

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Niamh Shackleton

Niamh Shackleton is a pint sized person and journalist at UNILAD. After studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Salford, she did a year at Caters News Agency as a features writer in Birmingham before deciding that Manchester is (arguably) one of the best places in the world, and therefore moved back up north. She's also UNILAD's unofficial crazy animal lady.

Topics: Life, carbon dioxide, Deaths, Tragedy, Volcano


IFL Science and 1 other
  1. IFL Science

    The Lake Nyos Incident Is One Of History's Spookiest And Deadliest Disasters

  2. Wikipedia

    Lake Nyos