B.C. volcanoes will one day rumble back to life, scientist warns

With earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis, floods and other natural hazards being risks and realities for British Columbians, the threat of a volcanic eruption might seem far down the list of things to worry about.

But one scientist with Natural Resources Canada says the province has many active volcanoes — and they’re not monitored very closely.

The good news? If one of them were to erupt, we’d get a heads-up.

“Hundreds or thousands of tiny earthquakes too small to feel for days, weeks, months, sometimes years. So there’s likely to be a lot of warning signs,” volcanologist Melanie Kelman told CBC’s The Early Edition. 

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, when black ash spewed over several U.S. states, reaching B.C., Alberta and even Saskatchewan.

In B.C., there have been 47 volcanic eruptions in the past 10,000 years, Kelman said. That’s not as frequent as in the U.S. or some other parts of the world, but it’s still significant, she added. 

There are several stratovolcanoes 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 last eruption was 150 years ago in northwest B.C., and that’s where Kelman would bet the next one will be.

“That’s where the most frequent eruptions have been,” she said. 

Mount Baker, just south of the border, doesn’t historically have big explosive eruptions, but there is a possibility it could erupt, Kelman said. If so, it could produce a lot of debris that could even overflow the Nooksack river and enter Canada, she said.

Challenges of monitoring volcanoes

So who’s keeping an eye on all of this?

Canada has a regional seismic network to detect shifting tectonic plates, and it’s believed this would pick up volcanic unrest as well, Kelman said.

However, there is no targeted monitoring being done on B.C.’s volcanoes. 

“It would be good to have more monitoring,” Kelman said. 

“Volcano monitoring is very costly and time consuming and I think it’s just very challenging to prioritize what natural hazards you need to give the most attention [to] because we do have a lot of things we have to look at.”

With volcanoes, it can be a challenge to convince people there’s a risk of a hazardous event that has not happened in their lifetimes, she added.

But Mount St. Helens is a reminder that we live among volcanoes and they could rumble to life at any time, she said. 

“It’s a reminder that these infrequent natural hazard events, even if you have no memory of it happening, there’s still a possibility it could happen,” Kelman said.

“So it’s good to keep an eye on these things.”

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