Lake Nyos occupies a young maar crater in the Precambrian granitic terrane of northwest Cameroon. The lake is partly surrounded by poorly consolidated, ultramafic nodule-bearing pyroclastic surge deposits that were explosively ejected from the Nyos crater at the time of its formation. Radiocarbon dates show that the maar probably formed about 400 years ago. Field evidence suggests that carbon dioxide could have been the principal volatile involved in the formation of the Nyos maar, and that the role of water may have been minor. The formation of the Nyos maar was preceded by a brief period of effusive basaltic volcanism, but the maar itself may have largely formed by cold, 'dry' explosive processes. Carbon dioxide may still be trapped interstitially in a diatreme inferred to underlie Lake Nyos; its gradual release into the waters of Lake Nyos may have set the stage for the tragic gas-release event of August 21, 1986. Only young maar lakes such as Nyos may pose a danger of future lethal gas releases. ?? 1989.