Kevin Krajick received the Sullivan Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held 19 May 2004, in Montreal, Canada. The award honors “a single article or radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.”
“A certain kind of truly memorable science story is also a chronicle of heroism. Such is the case with Kevin Krajick’s ‘Defusing Africa’s Killer Lakes,’ for which this year’s Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science was given. When Krajick traveled to a remote corner of northwest Cameroon’s volcanic lake district, he journeyed in the company of scientists who had tirelessly endeavored to elucidate the causes of a mysterious and deadly natural disaster—and to prevent its recurrence.
“On 21 August 1986, some 1800 villagers near the shores of Lake Nyos died in a mysterious mass asphyxiation. On 15 August 1984, a strangely similar incident, albeit on a smaller scale, had taken place at another crater lake, Monoun, about 60 miles south of Nyos.
“As word of the Nyos disaster spread among the world, an international team of scientists, including a Cameroonian hydrologist, a Japanese geochemist, French volcanologists, German, Italian, Swiss and British scientists, and U.S. pathologists, geologists, limnologists, and chemists, all congregated at the lake.
“Within the ensuing weeks and months, scientists concluded that built-up carbon dioxide gas from deep within the lake had exploded, releasing a deadly cloud. Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, called for ‘scientific assistance to help us set up a mechanism that can warn people when such a disaster is about to happen.’
“Sixteen years later, Krajick accompanied the scientists who have returned repeatedly to Cameroon, determined to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. They have risked their lives to do so, venturing out onto a highly unstable lake that could erupt again at any time.
“Their solution, ingenious and, by necessity, low-tech, has succeeded in venting deadly gas from the lake beds at Nyos and Monoun.
“Krajick’s eloquent explication of scientific phenomena underlying these tragedies-and the life stories of villagers forever changed by the disasters—is equalized in intensity by his portrayal of the scientists who conversed to protect people from sorrow and loss. At once an inspired piece of scientific explication and a recounting of an unfolding human drama, his story creates an unforgettable portrait of scientists committed to vanquishing suffering in a remote, but not forgotten, corner of equatorial Africa.”
—KATHLEEN BURKE, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington, D.C.
“This is a great honor, and I have many people to thank, including the editors of Smithsonian Magazine, where this piece appeared. This is in fact the fourth time a freelancer for Smithsonian has gotten the Walter Sullivan Award; past winners were fellow writers Michael Parfit, Jon Krakauer, and Richard Stone. No other organization has even won it twice, so somebody at Smithsonian is doing something right when it comes to assigning and editing Earth science stories. Particular credit is due my long-time editor Kathleen Burke. The magazine’s relatively new top editor, Carey Winfrey, and executive editor Terry Monmaney have carried on the tradition. They sent the great South African photographer Louise Gubb to go everywhere in the field with me; Louise’s peculiarly beautiful photographs of landscapes and people really made this tale come alive.
“This story was a scary one; but it was also hopeful. In Cameroon, I met some heroic scientists: Bill Evans, George Kling, Greg Tanyileke, Issa Ibrahim, Minoru Kusakabe. You can tell by their names they’re not all Africans; they’re from all over the world. They came together not to do abstract research, but to save lives—a great example of the immediate good that Earth scientists can do. These lakes are still dangerous—they could blow up again any time—so these people have courage.
“The greatest courage comes from Cameroonian, both scientists and people who survive around the lakes. Cameroonians Ph.D.s often work without money for microscopes, beakers, telephones, or Internet. Yet they get the job done. Less educated people face even longer odds. At Lake Nyos, where nearly everyone was killed by a gas eruption in 1986, I met a couple of local cattle herders, whom everyone called Mami and Papa Niyaku. They survived the gas, but their four young children were all asphyxiated. Anyone who is a parent can imagine what they have suffered. Yet Mami and Papa Niyaku chose life; 18 years later, they have four more children, all born since then. As Muslims, they told me they put their faith in God; but they were happy to see scientists helping out. And thanks to research, we now know that for just a million dollars or so, we could install some very simple technology that would make these areas safe. But it’s like so much else in the Third World; there’s no money, so the installation is incomplete and the threat remains. That would never happen in Canada or the United States. So I’d like to ask First World scientists: Let’s think about how we can channel more science resources to our brothers and sisters in poor countries. They don’t usually need fancy theories or huge budgets, just modest help with some very basic problems. Scientists can do that; with so very little, we can do so much good.”
—KEVIN KRAJICK, New York, N.Y.