Throughout history, every civilization has developed its own series of myths and legends. From the Greeks to the Egyptians, each one of these ancient cultures passed down intriguing—and often terrifying—stories.

Located in Cameroon, Africa, the mysterious Lake Nyos is the source of one of the most frightening legends of all. According to rumors, evil spirits once regularly emerged from the lake to scare locals. One day in 1986, however, when close to 2,000 people suffocated nearby the lake, these rumors soon became reality.

This is a detailed explanation of what happened at Lake Nyos that fateful day more than 30 years ago…

Located in the Northwestern portion of Cameroon, Africa, is Lake Nyos, a body of water shrouded in mysterious folklore. In fact, it was even eerily nicknamed “the Bad Lake.” One legend swirling around the lake concerned evil spirits that would emerge and kill people in the area. When 2,000 people were found dead near the infamous lake in 1986, however, people began reexamining these myths. In doing so, they found a far more frightening reality.

Geologically, Lake Nyos is an anomaly. Formed in the 1600s, the African lake is actually a volcanic crater lake, which are known for having extremely high CO2 levels. Typically, this level of gas buildup is released into the atmosphere over long periods of time.

Instead of the gas being released into the atmosphere, however, Lake Nyos kept it all inside, creating one massive high-pressure container. Over time, the water became loaded with gas. A test once revealed that for every one gallon of water there were five gallons of CO2 present. It was practically a bomb waiting to explode.

Eventually, on August 21, 1986, it happened. Even though the initial trigger was not identified, what transpired was a catastrophe, to say the least. That fateful day, the lake actually exploded in what scientists call a limnic eruption. The result—a small tsunami—shot water over 300 feet in the air. It also released all of that deadly gas…

During the 20-second limnic eruption, 1.2 cubic kilometers of CO2 was released into the air, causing a blanket of deadly gas to cover the entirety of several nearby villages. Almost no one survived the horrific ordeal. In the village of Nyos, specifically, only six of its 800 residents survived.

The deadly gas cloud spread upwards of 15 miles, killing more than a thousand people who came outside to investigate. Only those who escaped to higher ground in the nearby mountains were able to survive the catastrophe.

The results were devastating: 1,746 innocent civilians from the villages of Cha, Sebum, Nyos, and Kam lost their lives. Additionally, the disaster took the lives of roughly 3,500 livestock, while the lake changed color from its beautiful bright blue to a muddy red.

After the sudden eruption of gas left its fatal mark on the villages, authorities have since taken more precautions to prevent the tragic events from recurring. In an effort to monitor the lake, experts installed a pipe along the bottom to let gas escape normally. This pressure release often causes the water to spout into a fountain.

Even still, scientists suggest that these precautions might not be enough. Currently exceeding what they were on that fateful day in 1986, the CO2 levels have compromised a dam that sits in the lake. Those experts claim the next disaster could be worse than the one in 1986.

Worse still, Lake Nyos isn’t the only such threat to the African countryside. Similarly gaseous, 1,000 times larger, and located in a more densely populated area, the nearby Lake Kivu is also a problem. If it were to blow…

Researchers and experts continue to do their best despite facing a series of difficult questions. How can they predict another limnic eruption before it happens? And, more importantly, when will the next one take place?

It’s hard to believe that a lake could be so devastating. Let’s hope these experts do their best to prevent it from happening again.

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