THE STORY OF CANADA’S VOLCANIC PAST IS WRITTEN IN THE MOUNTAINS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
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 CanadasHistory.ca/Volcanoes
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