Western Canada – a land of volcanoes?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

With 20 per cent of the world’s population living within eruption distance of a volcano, one might wonder what would cause people to live in potentially dangerous territory. One reason according to Brian Cousens, assistant professor in the department of earth sciences, is that the land surrounding volcanoes is quite fertile, providing ideal farmland.  Another reason Cousens has noted while doing field work in volcanic regions such as Hawaii is that “for many people, it is their homeland and the place they are attached to.”  Perhaps surprising to some, a small percentage of this threatened population lives in Canada.  

Though Canada is not often thought of as a land of volcanoes, there over 100 volcanoes in western Canada that are less than two million years old with the potential to erupt again, explains Cousens.  "The volcanoes located in Canada may erupt suddenly and explosively, constituting a hazard to the surrounding population," he says.  Residents of British Columbia and the Yukon, an area included in the Pacific Rim of Fire, may have to deal with this hazard in Canada.   

Located north of Vancouver, Mount Garibaldi has erupted several times in the last few thousand years and is the focus of abundant earthquake activity.  Volcanic ash eruptions in the Garibaldi area would have an impact on air traffic and water quality around the Lower Mainland, while lava flows and volcanic mudflows could threaten the villages of Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler, and cut off Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler. 

With its close proximity to British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, Washington State’s Mount Baker poses an additional risk to residents of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland as evidenced by the abundant gas fumaroles near its summit.

However, volcanoes outside Canada may affect our country as well.  Should the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands off western Africa experience a massive landslide due to its unstable volcanic slopes, it could create a large tsunami wave that would smash into the Eastern Seaboard, impacting Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces, explains Cousens. 

Dr. Brian Cousens lead a Science Café discussion entitled Volcanic hazards and volcanoes in western North America on Wednesday, October 8.  The Faculty of Science leads the bi-weekly Science Café at the Wild Oat Café to discuss relevant issues facing our society.