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NSERC Presents 2 Minutes with John Clague

How Geoscientists Help Keep Canadians Safe


Video Name

2 Minutes with John Clague


NSERC Communications



Release Date

August 4, 2011


Although Canada is subject to a host of natural disasters, research by Canadian geoscientists and improvements in geoscience technologies have significantly reduced Canadians' vulnerability to hazardous natural processes. Simon Fraser University professor and Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research, John Clague explains how scientific knowledge translates to enhanced guidelines and improved public safety.

John Clague

My research is largely grounded in the science of natural hazards. And by natural hazards, I mean processes that operate on the surface of the Earth or at shallow depths in the crust of the Earth. For example, earthquakes, on-the-surface tsunami, landslides, floods —a wide spectrum of natural hazards.

Canada has the full set, if you will, of hazardous processes, so you can just walk through them—earthquakes, tsunami, landslides, floods, even hurricanes. The Atlantic seaboard is impacted occasionally by hurricanes that come up the Gulf Coast from the U.S. So we have it all. Vancouver and Victoria have never been damaged by an earthquake, but we know we get earthquakes in that region. So there's a lot of effort being made into getting ready for what, we feel, is an inevitable earthquake on the West Coast. A very large earthquake in Vancouver could cause more than a hundred billion dollars' damage, which is more than just a local problem; that's a national problem.

We know a lot more about earthquakes than we did 10 years ago. We have technologies in place that allow us to kind of take the pulse of the Earth, to see how the Earth is deforming and getting ready for an earthquake. And our knowledge—improvement in knowledge—which is largely funded through government support, allows us to provide better guidelines for engineers in constructing structures.

So, in Canada, we have what's called the National Building Code, and that has within it what are called seismic provisions that our engineers, contractors must follow when they build public structure or infrastructure.

And there's this process by which scientific knowledge gets incorporated into the building code through those seismic provisions. And as a result, and through improvements in engineering technology, our modern buildings are much, much better able to withstand, say, the forces during an earthquake than a building that was built even 30 years ago.

The technologies that we now can use —GIS technologies, the high-precision GPS technologies, satellite-based technologies that allow us to detect changes on the Earth's surface of millimetres per year, that in a sense give us a snapshot of how the surface of the Earth is deforming due to the processes that are operating at depth. And it's our ultimate objective that this will give us this pattern of deformation, which we can monitor continuously, you know, it's a continuous monitoring process – will give us some clues as to when an earthquake is imminent.

My great goal is to raise public awareness of these issues and to play a part in driving public policy change to – no one person can do that. But you know, as a collective, scientists can have an impact on policy.


John Clague is Shrum Professor of Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU). He was educated at Occidental College (BA, 1967), the University of California Berkeley (MA, 1969), and the University of British Columbia (PhD, 1973). Clague worked as a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada from 1975 to 1998. In 1998, he accepted a faculty position in Department of Earth Sciences at SFU, where he is currently the Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research. He is also the Director of the Centre for Natural Hazard Research at SFU. 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. His graduate students are currently conducting research on natural hazards and late Holocene climate change in western Canada. Clague's other principle professional interest is improving public awareness of earth science by making relevant geoscience information available to students, teachers and the general public. He gives frequent talks to school and community groups and is regularly called 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.

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