Canada's earliest recorded avalanche happened in Labrador, geologist says

Though avalanches might not immediately come to mind when thinking of Labrador, that part of the province happens to be home to the earliest recorded avalanche in Canada — and perhaps North America.

"It was a very major event," David Liverman, adjunct professor of geography at Memorial University, told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

The avalanche occurred in the winter of 1781-82 about 20 kilometres from Nain and killed 22 people in their homes, Livermand said.

"The sort of popular perception of avalanches these days is that they largely affect snowmobilers and skiers in the Rocky Mountains and in the west," Liverman said.

"But what distinguishes avalanches in our province — they certainly do affect people out and about in the countryside — but they strike people in their houses. The 1781-82 avalanche is the worst example in Canada of people being killed actually in the place that they lived."

While this recorded avalanche may sound unnerving, Liverman said it shouldn't be too worrisome, since a lot of factors go into such intense weather events. Plus, people don't often live in areas that facilitate avalanche conditions.

"Really for an avalanche to occur you're looking for steep slopes — slopes that are between 30 and 50 degrees — and areas with heavy snowfall. But that describes a very wide area of the Labrador coast around Nain," he said.

"They're probably fairly common, but in terms of actually impacting people it's a fairly rare event … Because not very many people live on coastal Labrador, the chances of actually being hit by an avalanche are pretty slim."

Interest leads to action

Liverman, formerly a geologist with the provincial government, said curiosity and coincidence led him to research avalanches.

"The initial interest was triggered by, really, purely coincidence that I was working on the Baie Verte Peninsula and came across a gravestone from the 1912 Tilt Cove avalanche where there were five people killed," he said.

"At that point I had no idea that avalanches were any sort of hazard at all in the province, and so just really curiosity drove the research. [I thought] that it would be interesting to find out how severe a problem they are."

Research Liverman worked on showed the Battery in St. John's had repeated serious avalanches, including one in 1959 that killed four or five people, he said.

"We made the City of St. John's aware of it, who then brought in consultants," he said.

"If you go to The Battery now and look up the slope, you can see some avalanche fencing, which is put there to stabilize the slopes and make the area safer."

Knowing about a hazard helps deal with that hazard, Liverman said. 

"So once you understand the hazard, you can take steps to make sure that the impact is far less."