In the autumn of 1986, a traveler made his way by bicycle from the remote Cameroon village of Wum towards the neighboring village of Nyos. The dirt track was unusually quiet that day and when he found a newly dead antelope he strapped it to his bike. Soon he realized that there were dead animals wherever he looked. He surmised that they had possibly been killed by a lightning strike and journeyed on. When he came to a small hamlet he decided to call in to ask if anyone knew what had happened. On entering the first hut, to his horror he found that everyone was dead. It was the same story in each hut. He panicked, threw his bicycle to the ground and ran as fast as he could back to Wum.
By the time he reached Wum to tell his story, several other people from Nyos and neighboring villages had arrived. Some spoke of hearing an explosion, others of smelling a foul odor. Some, still disoriented, had told of passing out for more than a day only to find the bodies of then- friends and family strewn about lifeless all around them when they awoke. Such was the remoteness of Nyos that it took several days for news of the catastrophe to reach the outside world.
Soon a delegation of scientists from France and America arrived to try to shed some light on this terrible event. The bodies of the dead showed no signs of trauma or struggle; they had simply died where they were. As the research team approached Lake Nyos, they noted that the bodies became more numerous and on arriving at the lake they saw it was an unnatural dark-brown color. That the lake was responsible for the deaths was clear, but the mechanism involved was not.
When: August 22 1986
Where: Lake Nyos, Cameroon
Death toll: Between 1,700 and 1,800 people and a huge amount of wildlife.
You should know: Further scientific research found that carbon dioxide had built up under extremely high pressure in the volcanic lake. A landslip had probably caused the gas to be released into the air, poisoning those in its path and then dispersing. The usual level of carbon dioxide in the air is much less than a tenth of one per cent but near Lake Nyos levels may have reached ten per cent (more than a hundred times higher than normal). Attempts to rid the lake of the gas through controlled draining have been only partially successful and locals fear that what they call the ‘bad lake’ could strike again.