Lava Land


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Fran­cois-Xavier De Ruy­dts

The his­tory of Canada’s vol­canic past is writ­ten in the moun­tains of the Pa­cific North­west.

The moun­tains of Canada’s West Coast are spec­tac­u­lar, but what of­ten gets missed are the vol­ca­noes that come with those moun­tains. Bri­tish Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska are sit­u­ated on the Pa­cific Ring of Fire. The sul­furous hot springs found all over the re­gion are more than just places to en­joy a soak; they are re­minders of the vig­or­ous ac­tiv­ity tak­ing place just be­low the sur­face, where shift­ing tec­tonic plates threaten to trig­ger earth­quakes and vol­canic erup­tions.

Earth­quakes are not un­com­mon — the last big one, at 7.7 mag­ni­tude, rolled through the Haida Gwaii re­gion of B.C. in 2012. No ca­su­al­ties or struc­tural dam­age re­sulted from this quake, but it did cause some hot springs to tem­po­rar­ily dry up. Vol­canic erup­tions are much less fre­quent.

Canada’s last ma­jor erup­tion took place about 2,360 years ago at Mount Mea­ger, a vol­cano north­west of Pem­ber­ton, B.C. As re­cently as Oc­to­ber 2016, ge­ol­o­gists were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pres­ence of new gas vents (fu­maroles) atop this moun­tain. They dis­cov­ered steam, car­bon diox­ide, and hy­dro­gen sul­phide es­cap­ing from the vents — but no sulphur diox­ide, which could in­di­cate the pres­ence of magma and a po­ten­tial vol­canic erup­tion.

“We don’t think an erup­tion is im­mi­nent,” Nat­u­ral Re­sources Canada vol­ca­nol­o­gist Me­lanie Kel­man told the Van­cou­ver Sun. “We think this is a new and in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­ery of a fu­ma­role field.”

Bri­tish Columbia has no less than ten vol­canic fields and belts, each with a unique ori­gin.

Among the most ma­jes­tic of these are the vol­ca­noes of the Mount Edz­iza vol­canic com­plex in the north­west­ern part of the prov­ince. Lo­cated within what is known as the north­ern Cordilleran vol­canic prov­ince, the com­plex in­cludes the Spec­trum Range, about fifty kilo­me­tres north of Mount Edz­iza. Named for its beau­ti­ful rock that con­tains ev­ery colour of the rain­bow, the Spec­trum Range of­fers one of the most stun­ning ge­o­log­i­cal dis­plays in Canada.

A few years ago, I crossed by foot the en­tirety of the Spec­trum Range and Mount Edz­iza, from south to north, in eight mem­o­rable days. It is one of the few places re­main­ing on earth where one can walk for days with­out notic­ing any sign of the pres­ence of mankind. It is a truly mag­nif­i­cent jour­ney into the dis­tant past.

Mount Edz­iza, lo­cated within a re­mote pro­vin­cial park that is with­out ve­hi­cle ac­cess, has been dor­mant for ten thou­sand years, but nu­mer­ous small erup­tions have taken place around it, cre­at­ing more than thirty black cin­der cones on the wild plains ex­tend­ing from the moun­tain’s base. Formed about thir­teen hun­dred years ago, the bare cones are per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal and un­al­tered by ero­sion, a sharp con­trast to the veg­e­ta­tion around them.

Mount Edz­iza it­self is a rugged moun­tain cov­ered with a thick ice cap from which glaciers flow in all di­rec­tions like lava. For those who want a glimpse of what Earth looked like be­fore hu­mans be­gan to tread upon it, there is no bet­ter place to visit.

In­dige­nous peo­ples made heavy use of the area’s ob­sid­ian — a type of vol­canic glass. This was made into cut­ting blades and pro­jec­tile points and traded through­out western North Amer­ica.

The north­ern Cordillera vol­canic prov­ince (for­merly known as the Stikine vol­canic belt) ex­tends north from north­west­ern Bri­tish Columbia, close to the Alaska Pan­han­dle, through Yukon, and on to the bor­der of Alaska in a cor­ri­dor hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres wide. This vol­canic belt was formed about twenty mil­lion years ago by a phe­nom­e­non called con­ti­nen­tal rift­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Kelly Rus­sell, pro­fes­sor of vol­canol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, the rift­ing oc­curred as the Pa­cific oceanic plate, steadily slid­ing north­ward along the Queen Char­lotte fault, started stretch­ing the con­ti­nen­tal crust at a rate of two cen­time­tres per year. As the land was be­ing pulled apart, deep faults formed in the crust par­al­lel to the rift zone. Hot magma started mak­ing its way up these frac­tures and erupted at the sur­face, cre­at­ing a vol­canic arc that has be­come the most ac­tive vol­canic area in Canada. It re­mains ac­tive to this day. The Queen Char­lotte fault is also re­spon­si­ble for some of the largest earth­quakes in re­cent his­tory, such as a mag­ni­tude-8.1 earth­quake on Haida Gwaii (for­merly called the Queen Char­lotte Is­lands) in 1949.

One of the most fa­mous vol­ca­noes of the north­ern Cordilleran prov­ince is the Tseax Cone, a vol­cano in the Nass Val­ley of north­west­ern B.C. that killed two thou­sand peo­ple two hun­dred and fifty years ago. Con­sid­ered the worst geo­phys­i­cal dis­as­ter in Canada’s known his­tory, the story of the erup­tion was passed down through oral his­tory.

Ac­cord­ing to the Nisga’a peo­ple, when smoke was seen ris­ing from a nearby moun­tain, a scout was sent to in­ves­ti­gate. By the time the scout came back to in­form vil­lagers of what he saw, a stream of lava had started to slide into the val­ley and to­wards their set­tle­ment. In a panic, some vil­lagers fled to nearby moun­tain­tops or ca­noed across the river to flee the burn­ing flow, while oth­ers buried them­selves in holes in the ground. Few sur­vived, as most were over­come by poi­sonous vol­canic gas.

To­day, the area is part of Nisga’a Me­mo­rial Lava Bed Park — a pro­vin­cial park man­aged jointly by the Nisga’a First Na­tion and Bri­tish Columbia. Visi­tors can drive by the lava beds that in places rise twelve me­tres above the road, a sober­ing re­minder of a tragic past. Vis­it­ing the Nass Val­ley feels like wan­der­ing in a grave­yard — but a beau­ti­ful one — and one can­not help think­ing about the many un­for­tu­nate peo­ple still buried un­der­neath the hard­ened lava.

In an ear­lier event around the year 803, a suc­ces­sion of in­cred­i­ble erup­tions blew from the heart of Mount Churchill, lo­cated close to the present-day Yukon-Alaska bor­der. Fol­low­ing the erup­tion, mas­sive lay­ers of vol­canic ash blan­keted 340,000 square kilo­me­tres of what is now Yukon and North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, killing or ad­versely af­fect­ing all life in the area.

It’s be­lieved that the eco­log­i­cal dis­rup­tions trig­gered by the de­po­si­tion of this ash had a pro­found im­pact on the Atha­paskan peo­ple of the area, push­ing them to dis­perse. These mi­gra­tions are thought to have cul­mi­nated in the for­ma­tion of the Pa­cific Atha­paskans and the Apache and Navajo of the south­west­ern United States.

An­other area of in­ter­est to vol­ca­nol­o­gists in B.C. is the Juan de Fuca plate, which ex­tends from southern Ore­gon to the north of Van­cou­ver Is­land and is slowly sub­duct­ing un­der the ad­ja­cent North Amer­i­can plate. As it plunges down­ward and pres­sure in­creases, the plate trans­forms, re­leas­ing liq­uids that melt ad­ja­cent rock. This magma then rises to the sur­face and has, over mil­lions of years, cre­ated a chain of vol­ca­noes called the Cas­cade vol­canic arc.

In present-day Washington state, the ac­tive vol­ca­noes of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Mount St. He­lens are all part of this vol­canic arc. Mount St. He­lens is no­to­ri­ous for a cat­a­strophic erup­tion in 1980 that killed fifty-seven peo­ple and laid waste to a large area sur­round­ing the moun­tain.

Mean­while, the Anahim vol­canic belt stretches about six hun­dred kilo­me­tres from just north of Van­cou­ver Is­land to Ques­nel in In­te­rior B.C. The belt formed from a string of vol­canic ac­tiv­ity that moved east­ward, with the last vol­cano — the Nazco cone — ap­pear­ing 340,000 years ago about eighty kilo­me­tres west of present-day Ques­nel. The Nazco cone last erupted only 7,200 years ago.

These vol­ca­noes are thought by the sci­en­tific community to have been formed by hot spots — well-de­fined cen­tres of up­welling magma that rises to the sur­face. When a con­ti­nen­tal or oceanic plate slides over a hot spot, the ris­ing magma can poke through the crust and cre­ate a vol­cano. As the plate con­tin­ues to drift, other vol­ca­noes can form along the di­rec­tion of drift­ing. Such phe­nom­ena are re­spon­si­ble for the for­ma­tion of Ice­land and the Hawai­ian is­lands.

About four mil­lion years ago, when the an­ces­tors of mod­ern hu­man be­ings — Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus — be­came the first pri­mates to stand on two feet, a vein of magma found its way to the sur­face just north of present-day Van­cou­ver. In an ex­plo­sive ef­fu­sion of fire, it ini­ti­ated the for­ma­tion of the Cas­cade vol­canic arc. The Cana­dian

ex­ten­sion of this arc — the Garibaldi vol­canic belt — to­day stretches all the way to Mount Sil­ver­throne in the Coast Moun­tains, about three hun­dred kilo­me­tres north­west of Van­cou­ver.

Among the first vol­ca­noes to be formed in this belt was Mount Cay­ley, twenty kilo­me­tres west of the present-day ski-re­sort town of Whistler. But then, be­tween 2.8 mil­lion and 11,700 years ago, some­thing hap­pened that changed the land­scape so pro­foundly that the ma­jor­ity of vol­ca­noes were ei­ther heav­ily re­shaped or wiped off the sur­face of the earth: glacia­tion.

Dur­ing the most re­cent ice age, what would be­come Van­cou­ver was ly­ing un­der a 1.5-kilo­me­tre-thick layer of ice. The glaciers eroded most ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures like vol­ca­noes and moun­tains down to their core. Yet vol­ca­noes con­tin­ued to erupt.

What hap­pens when lava meets ice is the story of Mount Garibaldi. Although it is only eighty kilo­me­tres north of Van­cou­ver, many res­i­dents of Van­cou­ver are not aware that this vol­cano is closer to the city than the more eas­ily vis­i­ble Mount Rainier in Washington state.

The unique, asym­met­ri­cal shape of Mount Garibaldi formed only thir­teen thou­sand years ago, when the Squamish Val­ley was filled by a mas­sive glacier. Dur­ing a se­ries of erup­tions, rub­ble and ash landed on solid rock on the east­ern side of the moun­tain, while on the western side the de­bris landed on an ice sheet. When the ice melted, the western side col­lapsed in a se­ries of gi­ant land­slides that filled in the Squamish Val­ley.

Next to Mount Garibaldi is a for­ma­tion called the Table. This formed when magma rose be­low an ice sheet and melted a large cham­ber. Upon con­tact with the sur­round­ing ice, the molten rock rapidly cooled into a large block, and grav­ity flat­tened its up­per sur­face. Once the ice had re­treated, the block of lava that had hard­ened un­der the ice be­came a flat-top moun­tain.

And fi­nally, not long be­fore the ice re­treated com­pletely, a nearby vol­cano known to­day as Clinker Peak spewed lava that im­me­di­ately hard­ened as it pounded against the re­treat­ing ice sheet, caus­ing a dam to form across the val­ley. Known as the Bar­rier, the dam gave birth to Garibaldi Lake. These amaz­ing fea­tures can be ad­mired by hik­ing the renowned Garibaldi Lake Trail, twenty kilo­me­tres south of Whistler.

Vol­ca­noes have shaped the land­scape in which we live for the past two hun­dred mil­lion years and will con­tinue to do so long af­ter we have dis­ap­peared from the sur­face of the earth. One thing is for sure: They will keep erupt­ing re­gard­less of who is in the way and will al­ways be re­minders of how small we are.

// See more pho­tos at CanadasHis­­ca­noes

As­bestos is one of those words that strug­gles un­der the bur­den of neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. The min­eral that once proved so use­ful due to its fire-re­tar­dant qual­i­ties is the root cause of nu­mer­ous deadly ill­nesses, in­clud­ing as­besto­sis, mesothe­lioma, and lung cancer. For Cana­dian his­tory buffs, the town of As­bestos, Que­bec, is pri­mar­ily noted for the long and bru­tal strike in 1949 that many cite as the start­ing point of the Quiet Revo­lu­tion. These sto­ries — of the town and of its name­sake min­eral — come to­gether in Jes­sica Van Horssen’s A Town Called As­bestos: En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­tam­i­na­tion, Health, and Re­silience in a Re­source Community.

While the min­eral as­bestos was dis­cov­ered in south­east­ern Que­bec in the late 1800s, the prod­uct did not en­joy a mass mar­ket un­til the years af­ter the First World War. The Jef­frey Mine, the geo­graphic and eco­nomic heart of As­bestos, was owned by the United States-based Johns-Manville Com­pany. As with other re­source com­mu­ni­ties, the town shared its fate with its largest em­ployer. When busi­ness boomed and jobs were plen­ti­ful, the pop­u­la­tion grew, pub­lic works pro­jects ex­panded, and lo­cal busi­nesses pros­pered. By 1960, the mine ex­tracted over twen­ty­five thou­sand tonnes of as­bestos fi­bre on a daily ba­sis, mak­ing it the world’s sin­gle largest source of the prod­uct.

But not all was rosy within this pic­ture.

The afore­men­tioned strike, fought over work­ers’ pay and safety con­cerns, lasted 137 days and ended with min­i­mal gains to show for the bit­ter and oc­ca­sion­ally vi­o­lent event. Like­wise, as far back as 1929 the mine’s own­ers were sup­press­ing in­for­ma­tion con­cern­ing the min­eral’s dan­ger­ous ef­fect on the health of those who were ex­posed to it — an odi­ous act Van Horssen likens to the well-doc­u­mented ob­fus­ca­tion cam­paign waged by the to­bacco in­dus­try.

By the 1970s it be­came im­pos­si­ble to deny the dele­te­ri­ous im­pact as­bestos had upon health, and global de­mand plum­meted. In 1983 the Johns-Manville Com­pany re­lin­quished con­trol of the mine. This, how­ever, was not the end of the story of As­bestos as a community, or of the prod­uct, but rather the point where the town’s ci­ti­zens be­gan to dis­play their re­silient na­ture. Uti­liz­ing po­lit­i­cal sup­port and fund­ing from the fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, the mine stayed open, and new mar­kets for as­bestos were found in devel­op­ing na­tions with weaker pub­lic health and safety reg­u­la­tions. This con­tin­ued un­til 2012, when sup­port was fi­nally cut and the Jef­frey Mine closed for good.

To­day, the community strug­gles to sur­vive. Ef­forts to di­ver­sify the lo­cal econ­omy have been more miss than hit, and over the past thirty years the pop­u­la­tion has halved. Some be­lieve that its very name is a hin­drance to fu­ture devel­op­ment — but when the mayor tried to change it to some­thing more palat­able, such as Trois-Lacs or Phoenix, lo­cals raised their ob­jec­tions. Rather than be­ing ashamed of their past, it seems the towns­peo­ple who re­main have em­braced it with a cer­tain moxie.

For those in­ter­ested in the his­tory of As­bestos, Que­bec, this is the book to read. Thor­oughly re­searched in the ar­chives — it is, af­ter all, based on a doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion — A Town Called As­bestos sit­u­ates this par­tic­u­lar town within a broader con­text of re­source com­mu­ni­ties. It also raises some im­por­tant ques­tions, not only about the survival of com­mu­ni­ties re­liant upon a sin­gle ma­jor em­ployer but also re­gard­ing our fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s will­ing­ness to use its pos­i­tive in­ter­na­tional pro­file to mar­ket a haz­ardous prod­uct to devel­op­ing na­tions. Read this book and feel the au­thor’s moral out­rage.

A hiker walks the Ar­madillo Peak in Bri­tish Columbia’s Spec­trum Range.

The Nass Val­ley in Nisga’a Me­mo­rial Lava Bed Park, where an erup­tion about 250 years ago buried up to 2,000 peo­ple.

Top: The Spec­trum Range in Mount Edz­iza Pro­vin­cial Park, B.C.

Bot­tom Right: Lit­tle Ball Val­ley and the slopes of Kounugu Moun­tain in the Spec­trum Range.

Bot­tom Left: An un­named gully in the Spec­trum Range.

HAZ­ARDOUS EM­BRACE A Town Called As­bestos: En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­tam­i­na­tion, Health, and Re­silience in a Re­source Community by Jes­sica Van Horssen UBC Press, 253 pages, $32.95

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