Natural Resources Canada
Government of Canada

Geological Survey of Canada

Volcanoes of Canada
Volcanology in the Geological Survey of Canada

How the GSC studies volcanoes

Scientists at the Geological Survey of Canada are involved in a wide range of projects related to Canadian, American, Caribbean and South American volcanoes. Most of our work falls into 4 categories: gathering of baseline geological data, gathering of baseline geophysical data, emergency preparation work, and international aid. In this section we describe our main recent and ongoing projects.

Gathering of baseline geological data

In order to understand where volcanoes are and how they are likely to behave, especially if nobody has seen them erupt, it's necessary to make geological maps of their deposits. This involves time-consuming field work to map the distribution of the rocks that make up the volcano, chemical and dating analyses of the deposits, and detailed interpretations of the volcano's past behaviour. The idea is to figure out the frequency, style and size of past eruptions because a volcano's past activity is the best predictor of its future activity. Over the past century we have been building this database, and it is a small subset of this information that makes up the Catalogue of Canadian Volcanoes on this site. Once this database is developed, it becomes possible to prioritize which volcanoes represent significant hazards to Canadians and deserve more detailed work: developing detailed hazard maps, increasing geophysical surveillance, and developing emergency plans.

Our database of volcanic geology is considerable but the size of the region and the number of volcanoes in it present a significant challenge. As a result we are continuing to gather geological information on a number of volcanoes, mainly through participation in student projects and collaboration with university colleagues. In the last few years we participated in the completion of a geological map of Hoodoo Mountain in northern B.C., which was largely accomplished by Ben Edwards as part of his Ph.D. project while a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), under the supervision of Prof. J.K. Russell. Part of the work on Hoodoo Mountain involved an expedition whose goal was to estimate the volume of ice covering the volcano's summit - click here to see a pictorial description of the expedition.

Starting in the summer of 2001, another Ph.D. student, Melanie Kelman, will proceed with work on the Mount Cayley volcanic complex. Melanie is co-supervised by Prof. Russell and Dr. Catherine Hickson of the GSC. In addition, there is an ongoing project led by Dr. Lionel Jackson of the GSC in Yukon Territory in which Crystal Huscroft, a M.Sc. student co-supervised with Dr. Brent Ward of Simon Fraser University (SFU), is establishing the geo-environmental history of part of the Yukon River. The river was periodically blocked by lava flows of the Fort Selkirk volcanic field.

Additional projects on Mount Meager, Mount Silverthrone and Mount Churchill are being planned.

Gathering of baseline geophysical data

In order to understand how lively our volcanoes are right now, it's necessary to monitor them for volcanic earthquakes. Volcanoes with living magma plumbing systems normally exhibit frequent small, shallow earthquakes or swarms of earthquakes that don't lead directly to eruptions. However, volcanoes which exhibit significant seismic activity appear to be most likely to erupt. In addition, increased earthquake activity tends to be a harbinger of an eruption. Unfortunately volcanic earthquakes tend to be small, usually with magnitudes less than 3. It is difficult to monitor a large region like western Canada for such events. However, we do maintain a widespread seismic network for monitoring tectonic-type earthquakes produced by motion along faults and between tectonic plates. The same network allows us to do basic surveillance on our volcanoes. Dr. Mark Stasiuk of the GSC Pacific in Vancouver and Taimi Mulder of the GSC Pacific in Sydney recently initiated a historical study of small earthquakes in western Canada in order to define the activity levels of our volcanoes. The results will be used to prioritize the volcanoes for enhanced seismic monitoring, pending funding.

Emergency preparation work

A significant part of our work involves participating in emergency preparation plans for earthquakes and volcanoes, working mainly with the Provincial Emergency Program. Regarding volcanoes in particular, the most likely impact would be on domestic and international air traffic. Volcanic ash and airplanes don't mix! For this reason we have developed a communication plan called IVENP to deal with ash-producing eruptions. IVENP stands for Interagency Volcanic Event Notification Plan. The plan is essentially a list of instructions for relevant agencies to communicate efficiently and facilitate information reaching air traffic control, so they can re-route airplanes and avoid ash clouds. In addition to the GSC, the IVENP involves Environment Canada, Emergency Preparedness Canada, the Provincial Emergency Program, Transport Canada Aviation, Nav Canada, the Yukon Emergency Measures Organization, the RCMP, and the Airline Pilots Association. All these agencies meet each year to ensure that the IVENP is up-to-date.

Apart from impacts on air traffic, at present few of Canada's volcanoes are likely to have a large and direct impact on Canadians in the event of a small to moderate size eruption, because of the small population and lack of infrastructure near the volcanoes. There are, however, a few important exceptions to this rule. A significant eruption of any of the Garibaldi belt volcanoes would significantly impact the Sea-to-Sky highway and communities like Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish, and possibly Vancouver. For this reason we are planning for developing hazard maps and emergency plans for Mount Meager and Mount Cayley. In addition there are significant hazards from "almost" Canadian volcanoes that require planning on our part, for example Mount Baker. In the event of an eruption, Mount Baker has the potential to send mudflows into the Fraser River valley. As a result the GSC volcanologists have participated with the U.S. Geological Survey in the development of emergency plans for an eruption of Mount Baker. The Baker/Glacier Peak Coordination Plan was completed and released in 2001.

International aid

Many countries suffer from the effects of frequent, violent eruptions and don't have the resources to deal with them. For this reason, as part of Canada's international development effort, the GSC participates in volcanic hazards work with a variety of other countries. For example, since 1995 we have loaned a Correlation Spectrometer (COSPEC) to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory in Montserrat (West Indies). We half-own the instrument with the Canadian company Resonance Ltd. The COSPEC is a commonly-used volcano monitoring tool, designed to measure the amount of sulphur dioxide gas in the air. The amount of this gas that a volcano produces is crudely proportional to it's level of activity. In addition, Dr. Mark Stasiuk of the GSC Pacific office in Vancouver maintains collaborative ties with the Seismic Research Unit (Trinidad), which is the regional Caribbean agency responsible for earthquake and volcano monitoring. At present Dr. Stasiuk and the Seismic Research Unit are completing a hazard map and seismic study of Dominica, which experienced a major volcanic earthquake swarm from 1998 to 2000. Finally, we have entered the first phase of managing a CIDA-funded project designed to mitigate volcano, earthquake and landslide hazards in poor Andean communities in South America. We will be working with Geological Surveys in up to 7 South American countries to help them create hazard maps, educate the public and develop emergency plans.