Natural hazard centre established

June 09, 2005, vol. 33, no. 4
By Terry Lavender

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British Columbia is known around the world for its natural beauty - its forests, mountains, rivers and coastline. Every year it draws multitudes of tourists and new residents to British Columbia in general and the Lower Mainland in particular.

But that beauty comes at a price. The west coast of British Columbia is at risk from such hazards as earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, floods, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

Now, a new Simon Fraser University research centre hopes to be able to assess, understand and possibly lessen the impact of these hazards.

SFU senate approved the centre for natural hazard research (CNHR) in May. The centre will conduct research on geophysical processes that are a threat to the inhabitants and economic infrastructure of the region, says earth sciences professor John Clague.

Sixteen SFU researchers, including geologists, geographic information systems specialists, geophysicists, biologists, and social geographers, are involved in the centre, along with scientists from the University of British Columbia, University of Northern British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Waterloo, the Geological Survey of Canada, and U.S. Geological Survey.

"Our objective is to catalyze collaboration among university, private-sector, and government scientists involved in natural hazard science," Clague says. "We want to better understand hazardous geophysical processes - earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, floods and landslides in order to lessen the toll of natural disasters."

The CNHR will focus on research, training graduate and undergraduate students for careers in the natural hazard research field and on transfer of scientific knowledge to the public, emergency preparedness personnel and government policy makers, Clague says.

Possible research topics include analysis of the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes; landslide hazard and risk assessment; evaluation of hazards posed by active volcanoes in the region, such as Mount Baker and Mount Meager; and flood risk analysis. "Ten billion dollars in infrastructure lies on the Fraser River floodplain, at risk from catastrophic floods," Clague says.

Climate change will also be studied, he says, specifically, the impact of climate warming on the landscape, for example, destabilization of mountain slopes due to massive snow and ice loss, melting permafrost and rising sea levels.

Besides researching specific hazards, the centre hopes to increase public awareness and influence public policy regarding natural hazards. For example, the centre will collaborate with the Canadian Avalanche Association in organizing public meetings to educate winter recreation seekers to the dangers of avalanches, which kill 15 people on average every year in western Canada, Clague says. The centre also hopes to jointly sponsor research projects with agencies responsible for public safety and to hold community workshops and presentations.

"The CNHR can be considered a vitally important insurance policy for Canada," Clague says.

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