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Earth sciences PhD student Denny Capps' research could lead to new satellite-borne remote-sensing tools for identifying geological hazards in lesser-studied locations such as the Andes and Himalayas.

Earth sciences PhD student Denny Capps' research could lead to new satellite-borne remote-sensing tools for identifying geological hazards in lesser-studied locations such as the Andes and Himalayas.

Thwarting disaster in a forbidding world

February 7, 2007

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By Diane Luckow

This spring, SFU earth sciences PhD student Denny Capps will fly by ski plane into the remote Alaskan wilderness where he is researching new methods for identifying and characterizing glacier-dammed lakes.

In cold regions around the world, glacier-dammed lakes unexpectedly and frequently fail, causing catastrophic flooding and significant damage.

Capps, who recently received an $80,000 (U.S.) Canon National Parks Science scholarship, hopes his research will eventually lead to new satellite-borne remote-sensing techniques for identifying such geological hazards in lesser-studied locations such as the Andes and Himalayas.

"In these areas, complete cities are flooded, thousands of people are killed and infrastructure destroyed," says Capps. Currently, he says, it's difficult to identify these lakes using land-based methods because of government bureaucracy and the hazardous terrain.

"These areas can be expensive and dangerous to visit," he says, "but with remote sensing you can just do it, you don't have to ask for government permission. Then, if you discover potential dangers, you can directly inform the government or the people who are at risk."

Capps' Alaskan research has already led to warnings for users of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park. "Last year, we discovered a lake that we thought would cause a flood at any moment," says Capps. He informed park rangers who, in turn, issued a warning and rounded up campers to ask them to move elsewhere. Capps forecast that the lake would flood within a few weeks, and it did. "We told them in the first week of August and it ended up flooding in the first week of September."

Capps, a Louisiana native, came to SFU in 2004 to work with earth sciences professor and Canada Research Chair John Clague, an expert on natural hazard research. Capps hopes to finish his PhD dissertation by 2009.

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