National Geographic

The Hot Seat: A Photographer's Descent Into A Volcano

According to his own website, Photographer Carsten Peter "specializes in going to extremes," and his recent National Geographic adventures are no exception: For the magazine's April issue, he descended into the depths of one of the world's most dangerous — and least studied — volcanoes, Nyiragongo.

  • "The Nyiragongo expedition's cooking tent glows in the twilight on the rim of the volcano."
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    "The Nyiragongo expedition's cooking tent glows in the twilight on the rim of the volcano."
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic
  • "Cradling one of the world's largest and least studied lava lakes — more than 700 feet across and possibly miles deep — Nyiragongo has twice sent molten rock racing toward residents of Goma."
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    "Cradling one of the world's largest and least studied lava lakes — more than 700 feet across and possibly miles deep — Nyiragongo has twice sent molten rock racing toward residents of Goma."
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic
  • "A member of the expedition walks on the caldera's cooled lava floor, turned red by the reflected glow of the lake. 'Down here you feel the volcano," says photographer Carsten Peter. 'It's a low-frequency rumbling that pulses through your body — like being inside a giant subwoofer.' "
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    "A member of the expedition walks on the caldera's cooled lava floor, turned red by the reflected glow of the lake. 'Down here you feel the volcano," says photographer Carsten Peter. 'It's a low-frequency rumbling that pulses through your body — like being inside a giant subwoofer.' "
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic
  • "All of the expedition's food, water, and gear had to be hauled to the summit rim, then lowered by pulley into the caldera. The biggest threat was falling rocks, says volcanologist Ken Sims, who led the team with fellow scientist Dario Tedesco. 'The caldera is continually collapsing on itself.' "
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    "All of the expedition's food, water, and gear had to be hauled to the summit rim, then lowered by pulley into the caldera. The biggest threat was falling rocks, says volcanologist Ken Sims, who led the team with fellow scientist Dario Tedesco. 'The caldera is continually collapsing on itself.' "
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic
  • "With temperatures around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, the lava lake is wildly erratic. As molten rock meets the air, it cools and forms plates on the lake's surface."
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    "With temperatures around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, the lava lake is wildly erratic. As molten rock meets the air, it cools and forms plates on the lake's surface."
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic
  • "Photographer Carsten Peter tests a thermal suit that is used to get close to the lava lake. For 30 years Peter has explored volcanoes around the world. 'Seeing at close range the primal forces that shaped the planet can be hypnotic. You cannot allow yourself to fall under a volcano's spell, especially one as unpredictable as Nyiragongo. That can be a fatal mistake.' "
    Hide caption
    "Photographer Carsten Peter tests a thermal suit that is used to get close to the lava lake. For 30 years Peter has explored volcanoes around the world. 'Seeing at close range the primal forces that shaped the planet can be hypnotic. You cannot allow yourself to fall under a volcano's spell, especially one as unpredictable as Nyiragongo. That can be a fatal mistake.' "
    Carsten Peter/National Geographic

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This active volcano rises up above the war-torn city of Goma in Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is home to an estimated one million people. Volcanologist Dario Tedesco says in the article, "there is no question the volcano will erupt again, potentially transforming Goma into a modern Pompeii." How to predict when this might happen is the crucial question the scientists hope to figure out.

The team of scientists set up camp only a few hundred feet above the giant lake of lava. I spoke with Peter on the phone and he says that the inside of a volcano is a "magic place to be" but it does not come without risk, e.g., falling rocks, splattering lava and poisonous gases seeping out of every crack. "It's like a big cat-and-mouse game where you don't want to be caught."

You can see their entire journey into Nyiragongo on the National Geographic Channel special Man Vs. Volcano. And check out more of Peter's volcano (and tornado!) photos on his site.

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