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The Beauty and Power of Nature


The Beauty and Power of Nature


The Beauty and Power of Nature

John Clague is passionate about protecting Canadians from the threat of natural disasters and climate change 

Vancouverites who enjoy a stroll around the Stanley Park seawall would rather not think about “The Big One”—the catastrophic earthquake seismic experts gauge the BC coastal region is long overdue for, and which has the potential to devastate thousands of lives and cause serious economic damage.

Luckily, BC has SFU’s Dr. John Clague on its side. He has been a key figure in helping the province create and implement detailed emergency preparedness plans in the case of extreme geological events. He was recently listed alongside luminaries such as Chris Hadfield and David Suzuki as one of Canada’s top 100 Modern-Day Trailblazers for his influence on Quaternary (a geologic time period that encompasses the most recent 2.6 million years) scientists in North America and Europe.

“Geology has been my passion since I was a child fascinated by rocks and minerals,” says Clague. “However, it was only after I began working for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) as a research scientist in 1974 that I realized I could channel this passion to helping people and society as a whole.“

Clague worked at the GSC for over twenty years documenting earthquake and tsunami hazards, evaluating the vulnerability of provincial highways and railway lines to landslides, and assessing the likely impact of future climate warming on the landscape. His findings have added to internationally applicable knowledge about where, when, and how natural catastrophes occur, how severe they are likely to be, and how we can be better prepared.

“The foundation for reducing the risk of so-called ‘natural disasters’ is innovative research on the geophysical and weather-related processes that are a threat to people and property,” he explains.

Joining SFU’s Department of Earth Sciences in 1998, he was named the Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research five years later and has since built an interdisciplinary research team at the University that works closely with government scientists across the continent. Recently, he was chair of an expert review panel appointed by the provincial government, the District of Squamish, and the Squamish First Nations to evaluate landslide hazards and risks related to possible residential development in the area. And in 2014, Kinder Morgan sought his expertise to determine whether the oil company could safely tunnel a pipeline route through Burnaby Mountain (home to SFU’s main campus). He and fellow earth sciences professor Doug Stead are also using the company’s data for a new study that   looks at earthquake fault lines in the Lower Mainland. 

Clague is a go-to expert for media outlets when natural hazards make the news, and he creates educational materials with the GSC to present geoscience to students and the public in an approachable way. His posters, maps, and other teaching materials can be found in many classrooms and his book Vancouver: City on the Edge has graced many local coffee tables. He has presented to parliamentarians in Ottawa about earthquakes and tsunamis as part of a series designed to increase politicians’ knowledge of the impact of science in Canada, and he was one of the authors in a special report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Explaining his motivations Clague says, “My professional and personal life is grounded in the belief that we must help others. Volunteerism, philanthropy, caring for others and the use of my talents to educate serve as my guides.” 


Dr. John Clague has consulted for several private-sector firms and government agencies, has written two popular books on the geology and geologic hazards of southwest BC, as well as a textbook on natural hazards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a former president of the Geological Association of Canada, and a past president of the International Union for Quaternary Research. He has received the Geological Society of America’s Burwell Award, the Royal Society of Canada Bancroft Award, and APEGBC’s 2001 and 2005 Innovation Editorial Board Awards. He is also the recipient of the 2006 E.R.W Neale Medal, the 2007 Logan Medal, and the 2012 Ambrose Medal, all from the Geological Association of Canada. 


Q & A with Dr. John Clague 

What motivates you as a researcher? 

Geology is a science that captivates and motivates me. This science is grounded in understanding the evolution of our planet over the 4.6 billion years of its existence, and for me in particular the processes are currently shaping it. I am driven by a desire to use my research skills to the benefit of society.  

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

We live in a time of difficult and complex challenges and problems. No one person, working alone, can make the research breakthroughs that address these challenges. Rather, teams and consortia of physical and social scientists operating in an electronically connected world are the future of research.

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction university research over the next 50 years?

The world is changing at a breathtaking speed. Advances in technology and communication are driving this change and will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years. I see teams of researchers spanning many disciplines, both within universities and among different universities, shaping the research agenda in the future.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?

On a professional level, I collaborate with colleagues around the world. On a personal level, I endeavor to improve public awareness of earth science by communicating with students, teachers, and the general public. I give frequent talks to school and community groups and am regularly called on by the media to comment on a range of earth science issues.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

SFU is a great university and its alumni, faculty, and staff can be very proud of its accomplishments during its first 50 years. We cannot, however, rest on our laurels. We must work hard to provide a quality environment for our research and teaching faculty, our staff, and our students; we must further build our satellite campuses in Surrey and Vancouver; and we must expand our distance education opportunities. First and foremost however, we must be open to innovations in education and not simply practice old pedagogical methods that fail our youth. Why not strive to be the best comprehensive university in the world by 2065?