Researchers call on British Columbians to share what they know about the risk from volcanoes

Part of Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park or Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a in northwestern British Columbia is seen on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. The lava beds were created in about 1780, when Canada's last active volcano, the Tseax, erupted.  (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press - image credit)
Part of Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park or Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a in northwestern British Columbia is seen on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. The lava beds were created in about 1780, when Canada's last active volcano, the Tseax, erupted. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press - image credit)

Many British Columbians are well-versed in earthquake drills and have likely weathered a few significant storms and floods in their lifetime, but how aware are they about the hazards posed by a possible volcanic eruption?

This is the question researchers at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Natural Hazards Research are trying to answer through an online survey open to B.C. residents age 18 and older.

The 12-15 minute survey asks a series of questions to gauge how much people know about the location of volcanoes in B.C. and the risks associated with an eruption. The survey is open until March 31, 2023.

There are several stratovolcanoes — the type known for their explosive eruptions —  in southern B.C., including Mount Garibaldi, the Mount Meager massif near Pemberton, and the neighbouring Mount Cayley volcanic field that stretches from the Pemberton Icefield to the Squamish River.

The goal, says Melanie Kelman, a volcanologist with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), is for SFU researchers to find the gaps in people's knowledge to inform future educational resources.

"We really want to know what they know so that we can give people the information that they need," said Kelman, speaking to The Early Edition Tuesday.

After centuries of inactivity, a volcano in the Alaskan panhandle, about 450 kilometres northwest of Prince Rupert, B.C., has recently awakened from dormancy.

Scientists have traced a swarm of minor earthquakes around Sitka, Alaska, in 2020 to magma activity below Mount Edgecumbe (L'úx Shaa), around 450 kilometres northwest of Prince Rupert, B.C.

Max Kaufman/Alaska Volcano Observatory
Max Kaufman/Alaska Volcano Observatory

The City of Prince Rupert said its emergency personnel had been made aware of the regional volcanic activity and has reviewed its emergency plans.

"At this point, there has been no local alert or hazard watch issued for our area," said the city in a statement to CBC News in November after a study from the University of Alaska showed rising magma levels below Mount Edgecumbe.

The knowledge-gathering work being done at SFU will be used to inform a larger project being undertaken by Kelman and GSC to create a hazard assessment map and information tools.

A hazard assessment, said Kelman, will have to take into consideration lava flow, volcanic ash coverage, debris flow and pyroclastic flow, which is a fast-moving current of volcanic matter and hot gas that can reach speeds of several hundred kilometres per hour.

U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Geological Survey

"The area where we have the most people close to volcanoes that pose a higher threat is in southwest B.C., but we do have volcanoes around the province, and they do threaten populations," said Kelman.

"We really want to know what [people] know so that we can give them the information that they need," she added.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), there have been at least 49 volcanic eruptions in B.C. and the Yukon in the last 10,000 years. The most recent eruption in Canada was in northwestern B.C. about 150 years ago.

"The forces that produced these volcanoes are still active, and some of them will erupt again, although we don't know when," says the NRC on its website.