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The Beauty and Power of Nature


The Beauty and Power of Nature


The Beauty and Power of Nature

Dr. John Clague is helping to protect the country's citizens and economic infrastructure from natural disasters and climate change.

Vancouverites enjoying a walk around the Stanley Park seawall would rather not think about “The Big One”–the catastrophic earthquake seismic experts have gauged is long overdue for the British Columbia coastal region, one with the potential to devastate thousands of lives and cause serious economic damage.

Luckily, B.C. has SFU earth scientist Dr. John Clague on its side. Clague has been a key figure in helping the province create and implement detailed emergency preparedness plans in the case of extreme geological hazards. In fact, he was recently listed by Canadian Geographic Magazine as one of Canada’s top 100 Modern-Day Trailblazers, alongside luminaries such as Chris Hadfield and David Suzuki for his influence on Quaternary (a geologic time period that encompasses the most recent 2.6 million years) scientists in the United States and Europe.

“Geology has been my passion since I was a child entranced with rocks and minerals,” explains 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 my passion to help people and society.“

He worked with 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 impact 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 better prepare for them.

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

In 1998 he joined the SFU department of earth sciences, was named the Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research in 2003, and has built an interdisciplinary research team at SFU which collaborates closely with government scientists across North America. 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 hazard and risk related to possible residential development in the area. In 2014, Clague’s expertise was sought by Kinder Morgan to help determine whether the oil company can 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 examining earthquake fault lines for the Lower Mainland. And currently, he is on a three-person Independent review board that is evaluating a mine tailings storage facility for a proposed mine near Kamloops.

He is also a go-to expert for media outlets when natural hazards make the news in British Columbia, 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 presented to parliamentarians in Ottawa on 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.

“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 are my guides,” he says.


Dr. John Clague has published over 200 papers in 45 different journals on a range of earth science disciplines, including glacial geology, geomorphology, stratigraphy, sedimentology, and natural hazards, and has consulted for several private-sector firms and government agencies. He gives frequent talks to school and community groups and is regularly called on by the media to comment on a range of earth science issues. Clague has written two popular books on the geology and geologic hazards of southwest British Columbia, and a textbook on natural hazards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, former President of the Geological Association of Canada, and past-president of the International Union for Quaternary Research. He is the recipient of the Geological Society of America’s Burwell Award, the Royal Society of Canada Bancroft Award, APEGBC’s 2001 and 2005 Innovation Editorial Board Awards, and from the Geological Association of Canada, the 2006 E.R.W Neale Medal, 2007 Logan Medal, and 2012 Ambrose Medal. 

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 gives 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?