11:32 am - Monday May 28, 2012

Limnic Eruptions

A limnic eruption, also referred to as a lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which carbon dioxide (CO2) suddenly erupts from deep lake water, suffocating wildlife, livestock and humans. Such an eruption may also cause tsunamis in the lake as the rising CO2 displaces water. Scientists believe landslides, volcanic activity, or explosions can trigger such an eruption.

Scientists have recently determined, from investigations into the mass casualties in the 1980s at Lake Monoun and Lake Nyos, that limnic eruptions and volcanic eruptions, although indirectly related, are actually separate types of disaster events.

Causes of Limnic Eruptions

Limnic EruptionsFor a limnic eruption to occur, the lake must be nearly saturated with gas. In the two known cases, the major component was CO2, however, in Lake Kivu, scientists are concerned about the concentrations of methane gas as well. This CO2 may come from volcanic gas emitted from under the lake or from decomposition of organic material. Before a lake is saturated, it behaves like an unopened carbonated beverage (soft drink): the CO2 is dissolved in the water. In both the lake and the soft drink, CO2 dissolves much more readily at higher pressure. This is why bubbles in a can of soda only form after the drink is open; the pressure is released and the CO2 comes out of solution. In the case of lakes, the bottom is at a much higher pressure; the deeper it is, the higher the pressure at the bottom. This means that huge amounts of CO2 can be dissolved in large, deep lakes. Also, CO2 dissolves more readily in cooler water, such as that at the bottom of a lake. A small rise in water temperature can lead to the release of a large amount of CO2.

Consequences of Limnic Eruptions

Once an eruption occurs, a large CO2 cloud forms above the lake and expands to the neighbouring region. Because CO2 is denser than air, it has a tendency to sink to the ground while pushing breathable air up. As a result, life forms that need to breathe oxygen suffocate once the CO2 cloud reaches them, as there is very little oxygen in the cloud. The CO2 can make human bodily fluids very acidic, potentially causing CO2 poisoning. As victims gasp for air they actually hurt themselves more by inhaling the CO2 gas.

Efforts have been under way for several years to develop a solution to remove the gas from these lakes and prevent a build-up that could lead to another catastrophe. A team of French scientists began experimenting at Lake Monoun and Lake Nyos in 1990 using siphons to degas the waters of these lakes in a controlled manner. A pipe is positioned vertically in the lake with its upper end above the water’s surface. Water saturated with CO2 enters the bottom of the pipe and rises to the top. The lower pressure at the surface allows the gas to come out of solution. Interestingly, only a small amount of water has to initially be mechanically pumped through the pipe to start the flow. As the saturated water rises, the CO2 comes out of solution and forms bubbles. The natural buoyancy of the bubbles draws the water up the pipe at high velocity causing a large fountain at the surface. The degassifying water acts as a pump, drawing more water into the bottom of the pipe, and creating a self-sustaining flow. This is the same process that leads to a natural eruption, but in this case it is controlled by the size of the pipe.

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