As related in Gordon Robinson’s Tales of the Kitamaat, the First Peoples living on the coast of what is now British Columbia ventured up what is now called Douglas Channel perhaps from either Bella Bella in Heiltsuk traditional territory or from Prince Rupert in Tsimshian traditional territory.
The young men on the expedition up the Kitimat Arm spotted what they thought was a huge monster kilometres ahead with a large mouth that was constantly opening and closing. The sight was so terrifying that the men fled back to their homes and dubbed the Kitimat Arm as a place of a monster.
Later a man named Hunclee-qualas accidentally killed his wife and had to flee from the vengeance of his father-in-law. Knowing he had to find a place where no one could find him, he ventured further up the Kitimat Arm. There he discovered that the “monster” was nothing more than seabirds, probably seagulls, perhaps feasting on a spring oolichan run.
He settled along the shore of what is now the Kitimat River and found a land of plenty, with fish, seals, game as well as berries and other natural products of the land. Eventually he invited others to join him, which began the Haisla Nation and he became their first chief.
Let’s examine the new evidence so far.
Settlement along the coastal “kelp highway” between 18,000 and 16,000 years ago, followed by a warm spell 14,500 years ago
It’s now fairly certain that the First Peoples first began to settle along the coast by following the “kelp highway” perhaps as early as 18,000 years ago and certainly by 14,000 years ago. Haida Gwaii was ice free, except for some mountain glaciation as early as 16,500 years ago. At about 14,500 years ago there was a warming spell which forced the glaciers to retreat, brought higher sea levels and the arctic like tundra ecosystem would have been replaced, at least for a time, by forests. There is the discovery of a Heiltsuk settlement dated to 14,000 years ago. At that time almost all of the coast would have been free of glacial ice but there were still glaciers in the fjords, including the Kitimat Arm which would mean there could be no permanent settlement in the “inland coast” and the interior.
The cooling period from 14,000 to 11,700 years ago confines settlement to the coast
The cooling periods (with occasional warmer times) from about 14,000 years ago to about 11,700 years ago meant that settlement would largely have been confined to the coast for about two and half millennia. The culture of the coastal First Peoples would have been well established by the time the glaciers began the final retreat.
(Remember that it is just 2,000 years from our time in 2017 back to the height of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar).
It is likely that the cooling periods also meant that some descendants of initial settlers likely headed south for relatively warmer climates. Rising sea levels meant that the initial settlement villages would likely have been abandoned for higher ground.
A second period of rapid warming 11,700 years ago which opens up the interior fjords and valleys
At the end of what geologists call the Younger Dryas period, about 11,500 years ago, the climate warmed, the glaciers retreated further, in the case of Kitimat, first to what is now called Haisla Hill, then to Onion Flats and finally to Terrace.
Large glacial sediment river deltas filled with fresh melt water from retreating ice
The most important confirmation of the story of Hunclee-qualas’s exile is the account of the monster, the birds and the oolichan run.
The new scientific evidence, combined with earlier studies, points to the fact that the glacial melt water carried with it huge amounts of glacial sediment that created vast river deltas in coastal regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
That means around 10,000 years ago, when the Kitimat Valley was ice free and the new forest ecosystem was spreading up the valley, the Kitimat River estuary was likely to have been much larger than today. It could have been a vast delta, which would have quickly been repopulated with fish, including salmon and oolichan. That rich delta ecosystem could have supported a much larger population of seabirds than the smaller estuary in recent recorded history.
The story of the monster those first travelers saw far off is highly plausible. Even today in huge, rich deltas elsewhere in the world, seeing hundreds of thousands of birds in flight over a wetland is fairly common. (For a description of what a Kitimat River delta may have been like thousands of years ago, see KCET’s story on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta and what that delta was like 6,000 years ago)
The First Peoples had had well established communities for up to four thousand years before the Kitimat Valley’s metres of thick ice had melted away. For the first period, while the ecosystem regenerated, for the people of the coast coming up Douglas Channel to the valley would not have been worth it, there would be little to find in terms of fish, game or forest resources.
The change from tundra to a rich forest environment
Eventually as the forest regenerated, the streams filled with salmon and oolichan; the bird population including gulls, geese and eagles, found a new feeding ground; bears, deer and other animals arrived. The Kitimat region would have been an attractive place to explore and hunt. It may be the monster story did keep people away until Hunclee-qualas had to find a place to hide and discovered a new home just at a time that might be called an ecological optimum with new forests stretching back along the valley to what is now Terrace.
The river delta shrinks back to the current estuary
If a vast Kitimat River delta did stretch further down the Channel than it does in 2017, it likely shrank back in the subsequent millennia. Eventually the mass of glacial sediment that came downstream after the retreat of the ice would diminish, but not stop entirely. The estuary is still rebuilt from sediments washed downstream but that sediment doesn’t match other rich deltas elsewhere such as the Nile in Egypt. With that regeneration of the delta slower and smaller than in the first centuries of Haisla settlement, at the same time the land surface rebounded from the weight of the ice, perhaps creating the Kildala neighborhood. The ocean level rose, drowning and eroding part of the old delta, creating the estuary we know today.
As the authors of the paper on the First Peoples’ settlement note, most of the archaeological evidence of early coastal settlement is now likely many metres below the surface of the ocean but deep ocean exploration may uncover that evidence. As the scientific team on the second paper say, they are now working on detailed studies of the glacial retreat from the coastal mountain region which may, when the studies are complete, change the timeline
While waiting for further evidence from archaeology and geology it is safe to say that the stories of the monster and later Hunclee-qualas’s discovery of the Haisla homeland are even more compelling than when Gordon Robinson wrote Tales of the Kitamaat. We can now speculate that there was once, stretching from Haisla Hill far down the Channel, a vast, varied rich, river estuarine delta that supported hundreds of thousands of seabirds, which if they took the wing in unison, would have made those unwary travelers millennia ago, really think that there was a giant monster waiting to devour them at the head of the Kitimat Arm.
Evidence from archaeological sites from the British Columbia coast to the southern tip of South America show that First Peoples had settled on both continents by at least 18,000 years ago, according to authors T.J. Braje at San Diego State University in San Diego, CA; T.D. Dillehay at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN; J.M. Erlandson at University of Oregon in Eugene, OR; R.G. Klein at Stanford University in Stanford, CA; T.C. Rick at National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
The paper also says the DNA genomic data suggests a northeast Asian origin for Native American ancestors some time in the past 20,000 years.
One of the key sites cited in the paper is Triquet Island in the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation which has been dated to at least 14,000 years ago. Heiltsuk oral history has marked the island for generations, William Housty a member of the Heiltsuk told CBC News at the time the discovery was officially announced in April 2017, “Heiltsuk oral history talks of a strip of land in that area where the excavation took place. It was a place that never froze during the ice age and it was place where our ancestors flocked to for survival.”
The authors of the review say the new consensus on the “kelp highway” is a “dramatic intellectual turnabout” from the original idea that the first indigenous settlers followed an ice free corridor from a land bridge from Siberia down the centre of North America to form the “Clovis Culture”
The land bridge between northeast Asia and North America, commonly called Beringia, came about when sea levels fell during the last ice age. Although the original Beringia hypothesis has been disputed by some First Peoples, the paper says the Beringia hypothesis is still a factor—but much farther back in time, now about 24,000 years ago.
The paper says:
most archaeologists and other scholars now believe that the earliest Americans followed Pacific Rim shorelines from northeast Asia to Beringia and the Americas.
According to the kelp highway hypothesis, deglaciation of the outer coast of North America’s Pacific Northwest about 17,000 years ago created a possible coastal corridor rich in aquatic and terrestrial resources along the Pacific Coast, with productive kelp forest and estuary ecosystems at sea level and no major geographic barriers
The paper says that kelp resources extended as far south as Baja California, and then—after a gap in Central America, where productive mangrove and other aquatic habitats were available—picked up again in northern Peru, where the cold, nutrient-rich waters from the Humboldt Current supported kelp forests as far south as Tierra del Fuego.
The other sites cited in the paper are
Huca Prieta, Peru 15,000 to 14,500 years ago
Paisley Caves, Oregon 14,000 years ago
Monte Verde, Chile 14,500 years ago
Page-Ladson, Florida 14,500 years ago
Channel Islands California 13,000 years ago
Quebrada Santa Julia and Quebrada Huentelauquén , Chile 13,000 years ago
Quebrada Tacahuay Peru 13,000 years ago
Quebrada Jaquay, Peru 13,000 years ago
In an earlier article in Science in August, Knut Fladmark, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University who was one of the first to propose a coastal migration into the Americas back in 1979, said: “The land-sea interface is one of the richest habitats anywhere in the world,” noting that early Americans knew how to take full advantage of its abundant resources.
Testing the kelp highway hypothesis is challenging, the scientists say, because much of the archaeological evidence would have been submerged by rising seas since the end of the last “glacial maximum,” about 26,500 years ago.
The earlier that the First Peoples arrived, that means the land they originally settled is now the further offshore from the current coast (land which is now likely also at greater depth under the current ocean). So the review says that finding the evidence means that, “enlarging already vast potential search areas on the submerged continental shelf.”
The authors say:
Although direct evidence of a maritime pre-Clovis dispersal has yet to emerge, recent discoveries confirm that late Pleistocene archaeological sites can be found underwater. Recent discoveries at the Page-Ladson site, in Florida produced 14,500-year-old butchered mastodon bones and chipped stone tools in the bottom of Florida’s Aucilla River.
The report says that “Several multidisciplinary studies are currently mapping and exploring the submerged landscapes of North America’s Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, searching for submerged sites. .
The review says that for much of the 20th century, most archaeologists believed humans first colonized the Americas about 13,500 years ago via the overland route that crossed Beringia and followed a long and narrow, mostly ice-free corridor to the vast plains of central North America. There, according to the earlier theories, Clovis people and their descendants hunted large game and spread rapidly through the New World.
This was initially confirmed by twentieth-century discoveries of distinctive Clovis artifacts throughout North America. Some finds associated with mammoth or mastodon kill sites, supported this “Clovis-first” model.
The early studies decided then that “North America’s coastlines and their rich marine, estuarine, riverine, and terrestrial ecosystems were peripheral to the story of how and when the Americas were first settled by humans.”
Now the recent work along the Pacific coastlines of North and South America has revealed that these environments were settled early and continuously, providing a rich diversity of subsistence options and technological resources for New World hunter-gatherers.
At the moment, there is little evidence on the coast so far of the kind of stone tools and fishtail points that had previously provided a road map that archaeologists used to trace the spread of “Clovis” Paleoindians throughout the Americas. Such a roadmap is lacking for “pre-Clovis” sites on the coast.
One proposal is that distinctive stemmed (“tanged”) chipped-stone projectile points, crescents (lunate-shaped), and leaf-shaped bifaces found in Japan, northeast Asia, western North America, and South America could be potential markers of an earlier coastal migration and ties to Ice Age peoples in East Asia.
The problem of finding final proof of the kelp highway is that the First Peoples followed a coastal route from Asia to the Americas, so that finding evidence for their earliest settlements will require careful consideration of the effects of sea level rise and coastal landscape evolution on local and regional archaeological records.
The scientists note that around the globe, evidence for coastal occupations between about 50,000 and 15,000 years ago are rare because of postglacial sea level rise, marine erosion, and shorelines that have migrated tens or even hundreds of kilometers from their locations at the ice age glacial maximum.
They say overcoming these obstacles requires interdisciplinary research focused on coastal areas with relatively steep offshore bathymetry, formerly glaciated areas where ancient shorelines have not shifted so dramatically, or the submerged landscapes that are one of the last frontiers for archaeology in the Americas
The immune system genes that protected north coast First Nations from possibly dangerous local pathogens thousands of years ago likely increased their vulnerability to European diseases in the nineteenth century, resulting in the disastrous population crash, a new genetic study has discovered.
The study which included members of the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla First Nations at Prince Rupert “opens a new window on the catastrophic consequences of European colonization for indigenous peoples in that part of the world,” the study authors said in a news release.
The study, published today in Nature Communications, looked at the genomes of 25 individuals who lived 1,000 to 6,000 years ago in what the study calls PRH—the Prince Rupert Harbour region– and 25 of their descendants who still live in the region today.
“This is the first genome-wide study – where we have population-level data, not just a few individuals – that spans 6,000 years,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi, who co-led the new research with former graduate student John Lindo (now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago) and Pennsylvania State University biology professor Michael DeGiorgio. Both studies were carried out with the consent and cooperation of the Coastal Tsimshian people.
The new study analyzes the “exome,” the entire collection of genes that contribute to a person’s traits.
“Oral traditions and archaeological evidence to date have shown that there has been continuous aboriginal occupation of this region for more than 9,000 years. This study adds another layer of scientific data linking the actual ancestral human remains to their modern descendants through their DNA over a span of 6,000 years,” said Barbara Petzelt, a co-author of the study and a liaison to the Metlakatla community. “It’s exciting to see how this tool of DNA science adds to the larger picture of Coast Tsimshian pre- and post-contact history – without the taint of historic European observer bias.”
In the new study, the team found that variants of an immune-related gene that were beneficial to many of those living in the region before European contact proved disadvantageous once the Europeans arrived.
The genes, the human leukocyte antigen gene family, known as HLA, helps the body recognize and respond to pathogens, or disease causing bacteria and viruses.
The authors say the “the immunological history of the indigenous people of the Americas is undoubtedly complex.”
As people came to the American continents about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago “indigenous people adapted to local pathogens.”
Statistical analyses revealed that the ancient genes were under “positive selection” before European contact. Natural selection meant that those ancient people with genetic resistance to those local diseases had an advantage that resulted in the genes becoming part of the population.
But the study indicates “those adaptations would have proven useful in ancient times but not necessarily after European colonialists altered the environment with their pathogens, some of which may have been novel. Existing genetic variation as a result of adaptation before European contact could thus have contributed to the indigenous population decline after European contact.”
The “positive selection” genes found in the remains of ancient members of the Coast Tsimshian people, has been replaced by another gene among the modern descendants that “has been associated with a variety of colonization-era infectious diseases, including measles and tuberculosis, and with the adaptive immune response to the vaccinia virus, which is an attenuated form of smallpox,” the authors wrote.
One of the genes is “64 percent less common today among the Coast Tsimshian people than it was before original European contact, which is a dramatic decline,” Lindo said.
The modern Coast Tsimshian show a “reduction in ‘effective population size’ of 57 per cent,” the researchers reported.
“’Effective population size’ is a population genetic concept that is different from what we normally think of with census population size,” Malhi said in an e-mail to Northwest Coast Energy News. “It basically means that there was a large drop in genetic diversity after European contact that could have been due to disease, warfare or other things that would result in this large population decline.”
The dramatic die-off occurred roughly 175 years ago, about the time that European diseases were sweeping through the First Nations of British Columbia.
While some members of the Coast Tsimshian community have intermarried with people of European descent over the past 175 years, the genetic changes cannot be solely attributed to what geneticists call “admixture.” The timing coincides with the documented smallpox epidemics of the 19th Century and historical reports of large-scale population declines. A majority of the “European admixture in the population likely occurred after the epidemics,” the study says.
To guard against what the study called “false positives” the genomes were also compared to individuals in the 1,000 Genome Project including 25 Han Chinese from Beijing as well as other indigenous peoples in the Americas including the Maya, the Suruí do Pará people of Brazil and a sample of Anzick DNA from the 12,000 year old remains of a child found buried in Montana.
“First Nations history mainly consists of oral stories passed from generation to generation. Our oral history tells of the deaths of a large percentage of our population by diseases from the European settlers.
“Smallpox, for our area, was particularly catastrophic,” said Jocelynn Mitchell, a Metlakatla co-author on the study. “We are pleased to have scientific evidence that corroborates our oral history. As technology continues to advance, we expect that science will continue to agree with the stories of our ancestors.”
The same vulnerability for smallpox, measles and tuberculous likely also contributed to the vulnerability to influenza, Malhi told Northwest Coast Energy News “It is important to note that any of these infectious diseases (measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu) could have resulted in the patterns that we are seeing. We just provided a few possibilities but not all possibilities.”
The study says the project was made possible through the active collaboration of the Metlakatla and Lax Kw’alaams First Nations.
The first collaborative DNA study began in 2007 and 2008. The scientists visited the communities each year “to report the most recent DNA results and obtain feedback on the results.”
“The two communities agreed to allow DNA analysis of ancestral individuals recovered from archaeological sites in the region and currently housed at the Canadian Museum of History. During and after community visits and extensive consultation, a research protocol and informed consent documents—agreed on by the indigenous communities and researchers—was approved by the University of Illinois Institutional Review Board. All individuals signed an informed consent document.”
These results were reported to the community and the scientists continue to visit the First Nations to report on this and related studies.
The study is titled “A time transect of exomes from a Native American population before and after European contact” and appeared in the Nov. 15, 2016, edition of Nature Communications.
UPDATED with comments from District of Kitimat, Terrace and the Gitga’at Nation
A preliminary seismic hazard assessment by Natural Resources Canada has identified possible earthquake scenarios for the Douglas Channel near Hartley Bay, Terrace and Bella Bella.
The same studies indicate that while Kitimat may not be directly in a seismic zone prolonged earthquakes cause some damage in Kitimat depending on the earthquake and the condition of the soil in certain parts of the District. One model scenario says that in the event of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, given certain soil conditions, there might actually be more damage in Kitimat than on the islands.
Susceptibility to landslides
That assessment, part of the overall the study by the Geological Survey of Canada indicates that the north coast of British Columbia from Prince Rupert to Bella Bella is likely face to “seismically induced ground failure”– mostly landslides.
Overall, the report says that on a scale of 1 to 6 (6 representing the highest
susceptibility), the majority of the west coast of BC “exhibits landslide susceptibility values of 5 to 6, which is significantly higher than the rest of Canada.”
In British Columbia the landslides are most likely to be triggered by delayed melting of the annual snow pack, heavy rains, bank erosion and site loading and caused long-lasting damning of the river causing “damage to pipelines, rail, and forestry, as well as fish habitats.”
So far no recent landslides along the northern British Columbia coast are known to be caused by earthquakes, the reports say “the existence of numerous landslides strengthens the likelihood of seismically induced ground failures… due to the high levels of seismicity….it is expected that the increased likelihood of strong ground shaking (with long durations) will increase the landslide susceptibility.”
It was only after the 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake and with what the Geological Survey of Canada calls “a growing number of on-going and planned infrastructure projects, BC’s north coast is emerging as a region of high strategic importance to Canada’s economy,” that studies began in area where “there has been minimal research to understand earthquake hazards.”
Now that studies have begun the Geological Survey has given the region its own new acronym BCNC (BC North Coast). Haida Gwaii is not part of BCNC, although earthquakes on those islands would likely impact the coast.
The Geological Survey says that historically “the BCNC has been seismically quiescent.” As a result “seismic monitoring and research related to the BCNC has been minimal.” That meant while larger earthquakes were “felt and recorded,” the configuration of the Canadian National Seismograph Network did not allow earthquakes less than approximately magnitude 2.1 to be monitored in northern BC.
Now the Geological Survey is looking at “long-term, continuous monitoring of micro seismicity, combined with geodetic and paleo seismic techniques” that could be used to study at the possibility of large earthquakes, including a possible fault on the lower Douglas Channel.
Since the studies began in August 2014, the Geological Survey identified 145 earthquakes within the study area, many too small to be felt since they are less than magnitude 2.0. Those earthquakes, however, were picked up by the new and improved instrumentation used by the earthquake monitors.
The two reports one on “seismic hazards” and the second on “geohazards” says five “temporary seismonitors” (download reports from links below) were installed within the BCNC while some older stations were upgraded, saying, “It is expected that these new stations will be aid in locating small earthquakes” that were not previously detected by the existing network. The Geological Survey also installed ground movement monitoring GPS units along the coast.
The use of the term “temporary” raises the question about how much ongoing monitoring is planned.
The study also notes that the current data is not included in the seismic standards in the current National Building Code of Canada, which in turn is based on the Natural Resources Canada Seismic Hazard Map. That may mean that municipalities in the BC North Coast region, in the future, as the seismic studies continue, may have to consider updating building codes, especially in areas of “softer soils” as opposed to harder rock.
“Fault-like structure” on Douglas Channel
Over the years some small earthquakes have also been recorded on what the Geological Survey calls the “recently mapped fault-like structure” on Douglas Channel which was discovered in 2012. The survey is still calling it “fault-like” because it has not yet been confirmed as an active fault. A new map in the study shows that the “fault” runs from the southern tip of Gribbell Island, down the centre of Whale Channel east of Gil Island and then along the western coast of Princess Royal Island.
The study identified “a small, unfelt swarm of earthquakes between magnitude 1.7 and 2.0 between September 13 and 14, 2010 near Gil Island.”
There is also the previously identified ancient Grenville Channel Fault (ancient and believed inactive because it dates from the Cretaceous, the age of the dinosaurs) that runs from along Grenville Channel from Porcher Island in the north to Klemtu in the south which has experienced small earthquakes.
The report says geological studies of the Douglas Channel “fault-like structure” are a priority because, “Should this structure be determined to be an active fault, it would pose significant risk of earthquake-triggered landslides (and subsequent tsunami) from the susceptible Douglas Channel hill slopes.”
Clay and sand in Kitimat
The report also calls for more studies the local geology and soil conditions in the Kitimat Valley. A study back in 1984 by John Clague of Simon Fraser University showed that as the glaciers retreated during the last Ice Age there were “periods of stagnation” resulting in sediments that are thicker than other regions of British Columbia, Clague reported that in parts of Kitimat, the glacial moraine is hundreds of metres thick.
After the glaciers were gone, the sea levels rose and glaciomarine sediments (clay, silt up to 60 metres thick) were deposited until the sea level fell to present-day levels. The report says that as these marine deposits were exposed to fresh water, salts were leached out resulting in saturated, porous sediments, including clay, which are prone to failure. Boreholes in the Kitimat area show that the clay and sediments above the bedrock can range from 17 metres to 106 metres.
The report notes the presence of clay soils “can amplify ground shaking and secondary effects” as happened in November 1988 when there was an earthquake in the Saguenay region of Quebec.
Originally reported as a 6.2 magnitude but later downgraded to 5.9, on Nov. 25, 1988, the major earthquake was centered near the Quebec cities of Chicoutimi and Jonquière, with aftershocks felt as far away as Toronto, Halifax and Boston. The quake lasted for two minutes, catching thousands of people off guard and leaving buildings damaged and power out for hundreds of thousands of Quebecers.
The report says the most significant event within the BC North Coast study region (which as mentioned doesn’t include Haida Gwaii) was a magnitude 4.9 earthquake approximately 20 kilometers southwest of Terrace on November 5, 1973, which was felt as far as 120 kilometers away, with some minor damage (broken windows and cracked plaster) reported near the epicentre. The main shock at Terrace was preceded by a magnitude 2.5 foreshock four hours before, and followed by a felt magnitude 3.7 aftershock the next day.
Bella Bella at risk
Another area most at risk, according to the report, is southern part of the BC North Coast zone, near Bella Bella, which is close to the northern section Cascadia Subduction Zone a “1,000 kilometre long dipping fault that stretches from Northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino California” which one day will cause a major earthquake along the fault.
The report says that a magnitude 9.0 or higher earthquake in the northern Cascadia Subduction zone close to Bella Bella would be similar to the March 2011 earthquake in Japan and the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Alaska.
For the northern part of the BC North Coast region, hazards could come from either a major earthquake off Haida Gwaii or a similar earthquake in south-eastern Alaska.
The greatest hazard would come from “long period” earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.75 with an epicentre between 300 and 350 kilometers away where the shaking lasts longer than one second.
The Geological Survey modeled three possible scenarios for major earthquakes in the BC North Coast Region.
Model #1. A magnitude 8.0 Earthquake at Haida Gwaii
The model looked at a “plausible maximum predicted” magnitude 8.0 thrust fault earthquake off the west coast of Haida Gwaii which would be twice as strong in the fault area as the 7.8 quake on October 28, 2012 (Remember Magnitudes are based on a logarithmic scale. That means for each whole number higher, the amplitude of the ground motion recorded by a seismograph goes up ten times so magnitude 8 earthquake would result in ten times the ground shaking as a magnitude 7 earthquake)
For a short period earthquake, the report estimates that there would be minimal damage on Haida Gwaii similar to the damage from the 2012 earthquake with little or no damage on the BC North Coast.
A long duration, long period earthquake that lasted longer than one second and up to three seconds or longer “may effect taller structures and trigger ground failure (that is liquefaction and lateral shaking).” Kitimat would feel that earthquake with the worst shaking in parts of the District with what the report calls “sensitive soils.” Coastal islands would feel double the amount of shaking as would occur in Kitimat.
Model #2. A magnitude 7.2 Earthquake in Douglas Channel
The second model looked at an earthquake in Douglas Channel based on the “fault like structure” if a slip strike rupture occurred along the entire 60 kilometers of the so far unconfirmed fault, resulting in a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. There would be very strong shaking within 20 kilometers radius of the epicentre, with moderate to heavy damage” in the relatively uninhabited islands, major shaking in Hartley Bay, resulting in very strong to strong damage at Hartley Bay and strong to moderate damage in Kitimat.
That earthquake, however, would be felt across the entire province of British Columbia. The report notes:
The expected effects and impacts of such an earthquake would mimic those of the 1946 magnitude 7.3 Vancouver Island earthquake, which occurred slightly west of Courtney and Campbell River. Shaking due to the 1946 earthquake was felt as far as Prince Rupert, BC to the north and Portland, Oregon to the south. In addition to knocking down 75 per cent of the chimneys in the local area, much of the earthquake-related damage was due to landslides, slumping and liquefaction
Model #3 A magnitude 6.3 Earthquake near Terrace
On May 11, 1973, a magnitude 4.7 shallow earthquake took place about 20 kilometers south west of Terrace, on the south side of the Skeena roughly across from the Shames mountain area. The earthquake was felt up to 120 kilometers away. The report says “The event has not been associated with any geologic features in the area and little is known about its rupture process.” The model estimated the results of a larger earthquake 6.3 magnitude in the same area. The model showed there would be strong to very strong shaking in Terrace, light to moderate shaking in Kitimat and light damage elsewhere in the BC North Coast. Most of the damage would be concentrated in a 20 kilometer zone around the epicentre.
The cause of the two failures is still unknown but the report says “their proximity to a nearby unmapped fault-like structure suggests that the slides could have been triggered by strong ground shaking from rupture along this structure.”
Another factor was the two well-known landslides occurred in the 1970’s in the Kitimat Arm which generated tsunamis but fortunately they occurred at low tide which decreased the impact. On October 17, 1974 a submarine slide generated a 2.8 metre tsunami. The following year on April 27, 1975, a slope failure on the northeast side of Kitimat Arm (which overlapped the 1974 failure area) displaced an estimated upper limit of 26,000,000 cubic metres of material.
“Watermark observations in Kitamaat Village estimated that the tsunami generated by this slide was up to 8.2 metres high.” The report says that while the trigger of the first event is unknown; the latter event coincided with nearby construction at that time. Modelling of the 1975 slide estimates that given the right conditions the generated tsunami waves could have been as high as 11 metres.
The report also notes that numerous landslides have also been mapped by the BC Department of Forestry in an attempt to improve safety measures for forestry workers.
The report says “The culmination of these studies brings awareness to the significant natural hazards present in the fragile coastal environment of the Coast Ranges.”
Another factor is the geology of the BC coast. The granitic mountains have rugged, steep slopes dissected by an intricate fjord system and dotted with islands of lower elevation. At lower elevations the land is covered by wet, coastal hemlock forests, which could be vulnerable to ground failures whereas higher elevations are characterized by barren rock or mountain hemlock subalpine.
The District of Kitimat said it has “not directly studied these issues but we are aware of potential hazards.” The development department has been advised of potential issues and site concerns.
A spokesperson for Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc told Northwest Coast Energy News in an e-mail. “I have reviewed it and distributed it to the relevant department heads. We are aware that historically Terrace has been at risk for experiencing seismic activity due to its location.”
The District of Kitimat did cooperate with National Resources in finding a location for their recently installed seismic equipment.
At Harley Bay, Gitga’at First Nation CEO Ellen Torng said the Gitga’at have been “ working with NRCan on their research in the Douglas Channel and in Hawksbury. NRC has been meeting with First Nations along the coast and have conducted community sessions on their research.
“We hosted one community session here in Hartley Bay and have regular updates from their technical team when they are in the area,” Torng said.
In addition, the District of Kitimat told Northwest Coast Energy News that Community Planning & Development department also provided local land information to geoscientists in the years leading up an international study called Batholiths on land in 2009.
Batholiths are large zones of molten rock that have solidified in the earth’s crust and are believed to play a key role in the formation and growth of continents. The Coast Mountain Range has a large concentration of batholiths, which means Kitimat was an excellent place to study the earth’s crust.
The project, which involved more than 50 scientists from nine Canadian and American universities, was set up to examine how mountain belts form and change over time and why continental mountain ranges are made of granite not basalt. Seismic imaging of the crust and mantle below the mountains required deploying thousands of seismic sensors and recorders, and recorded responses to several man-made detonations. Field work was completed in July 2009, and several scientific papers and dissertations have followed.
The Heiltsuk Nation was unable to respond to a request for comment due to the ongoing crisis from the sinking of the tug Nathan E. Stewart and the resulting spill of diesel fuel and other contaminants near Bella Bella.
Not felt except by a very few under especially favorable conditions.
Felt only by a few persons at rest,especially on upper floors of buildings.
Felt quite noticeably by persons indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings. Many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibrations similar to the passing of a truck. Duration estimated.
Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rocked noticeably.
Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.
Felt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.
Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.
Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable damage in ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse. Damage great in poorly built structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned.
Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.
Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations. Rails bent.
That’s one of the predictions from a new study from the University of British Columbia, looking at the future of the fishery on the coast.
The study concentrates on the First Nations fishery and warns that aboriginal people could face a catastrophic decline in the harvest of traditional species, especially salmon and herring roe on kelp over the next thirty years, a decline that will also have an equally devastating effect on commercial and recreational fishing.
The main cause of the decline is climate change and the warming of the coastal waters. The study projected “modest to severe declines in catch potential” for all current commercial fisheries along the coast.
The study says that for the First Nations the between $28 million to $36 million in revenue they got from fishing between 2001 and 2010 could fall by up to 90 per cent depending on how the climate changes.
One scenario calls for a decline of up to 40 per cent in chinook and pink salmon.
If there is any good news, if you can call it that, the decline will be not as bad in northern coastal waters as it will be the warmer waters near the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. The range of some species, including salmon, herring, halibut and possibly oolichan will move to farther north along the BC Coast and into Alaskan waters.
That means in time the warming waters will also encourage an increase in other species, including sardines and some clams.
The changing oceans mean that “an increase in the relative abundance of warmer-water species was projected to lead to new or increased opportunities for commercial harvests by 2050.”
The study is urging the First Nations and other stakeholders in the British Columbia fishery to start long term planning immediately to anticipate changes in the coming decades.
The team of scientists led by Lauren Weatherdon, a graduate student at UBC, noted that while previous studies have looked at the impact of climate change on large-scale commercial fisheries, “few efforts have been made to quantitatively project impacts on small-scale subsistence and commercial fisheries that are economically, socially and culturally important to many coastal communities.”
The study was conducted in cooperation with the BC First Nations Fisheries Council and looked its seven coastal administrative regions “forming a sample of groups with diverse marine resources, geographical locations, territorial sizes, and treaty statuses.”
Within those regions 16 First Nations participated in the study, some under their treaty councils, including the Council of the Haida Nation, the Tsimshian Nations Treaty Society (including the Gitga’at at Hartley Bay and the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum near Terrace) and the Maa-nulth First Nations. The Heiltsuk First Nation at Bella Bella participated as an independent group.
The FNFC’s administrative regions intersect with five distinct ecological regions: the North Coast, comprising the Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance; Haida Gwaii, which includes the waters surrounding the islands; the Central Coast, including Queen Charlotte Sound, Queen Charlotte Strait, and the southern tip of Hecate Strait; the Strait of Georgia; and the west coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI) .
The study says First Nations are likely to be exposed to different climate-related impacts on fisheries due to the differing ecological and biogeographical characteristics of these regions and to differing traditional and commercial harvests.
The study used a “dynamic bioclimate envelope” computer model to look at the changes to the distribution and relative abundances of the BC coastal species under two climate change scenarios, a high greenhouse gas model where society can’t curb emissions and a low greenhouse gas emission scenarios, depending on how society is able to curb the increase.
The study looked at ocean properties—including sea surface temperature, sea bottom temperature, salinity, oxygen concentration, surface action, and net primary production—using data from the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administrations’ climate-related earth system model.
Climate change will mean that current species on the BC coast will “shift polewards.”
The study showed that by 2050, there could be declines in 87 of the 98 species in the study.
Greater losses in what the study calls “species richness” is likely to occur towards the southern coast of British Columbia, falling primarily between 48°N and 51°N. But, overall, species richness along coastal BC will continue—only with different species.
Most significantly the study projects a decline in the overall salmon catch from 17.1 per cent to 29.2 per cent, depending on the region and climate.
All aspects of the herring fishery, including roe herring, spawn-on-kelp, and the food and bait fishery could decline between 28.1 per cent and 49.2 per cent depending on the region.
The future of the oolichan is the most uncertain. One of the models studied projected a further 37.1 per cent decline in the oolichan, while other models called for for a decline between 5 per cent and 6.8 per cent. That will depend on how well, the oolichan already threatened in most regions of British Columbia are able to adapt to warmer waters or find a way to move their range northward.
The study says white sturgeon and Pacific sardines were projected to increase in abundance under both climate change scenarios, while manila clams were projected to increase in abundance by 14.5 per cent in one of the models. The eight remaining species showed little change.
The study suggests that the southern territories (Tsawwassen, Tla’amin, and Maa-nulth First Nations) will likely see a reduction in catch potential between -15.2 per cent and -27.8 per cent depending on how the climate changes.
On the north coast. The Haida and Tsimshian First Nations and those situated along the central or north-eastern coasts of Vancouver Island (Heiltsuk and ‘Namgis First Nations) would likely see smaller reductions in relative catch for each territory, with estimates falling between -3.2 per cent and -8.2 per cent.
The study shows that for the First Nations along the North and Central Coasts of British Columbia (Gitga’at and Haida, and Heiltsuk and ‘Namgis) there will be neutral or positive shifts in catch potential for white sturgeon, kelp greenling, and two species of perch under both scenarios.
While varying regionally, both scenarios also suggested either a slight cumulative decline or negligible change in catch potential for clams, rockfish, lingcod, and sculpins across the North and Central Coast.
One potential problem the study suggests is that fishers in southern British Columbia may, in the future, try to move north to follow the harvest, leading to potential conflicts. The cost of travel, may, however, discourage that.
One of the recommendations from the study is that First Nations revive the traditional clam gardens.
Traditional clam beds serve as an ideal example of a method that could be applied to offset climatic impacts through internalized mechanisms, using local cultivation to generate increased productivity by enhancing native habitat rather than redirecting extraction efforts towards other regions or species. Clam gardens constructed in a manner akin to those situated near ancient settlements of the Northern Coast Salish and Laich-kwil-tach First Nations have been found to generate higher clam densities, biomass, and growth rates than non-walled beaches . These benefits were observed for Pacific littleneck clams and butter clams , two clams that are of cultural, economic, and ecological importance to the region Reinstating clam beds in First Nations’ territorial lands has been suggested as a means of simultaneously achieving local conservation and cultural objectives and may thereby provide a politically and ecologically viable option for mitigating climate-related impacts.
The most important recommendation is that the First Nations and other stakeholders start cooperating immediately to offset how the changing climate with affect the fishery:
Management of salmon and herring stocks has been highly contentious due to the myriad of stakeholders who depend upon them, which include First Nations, recreational fisheries, and commercial fisheries….
Aside from fulfilling societal needs, salmon serve as key ecological components of the Pacific Northwest Coast, functioning as the mechanisms by which nutrients are transferred from the ocean to freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems
It says the projections show that a “redistribution of fishing effort” will not “fully offset declines in salmon and herring”
attaining a state of collaboration between First Nations, DFO, and other sectors has the potential to yield beneficial ecological and political results, if implemented correctly. Parallels exist between First Nations’ traditional fisheries management approaches and “modern” approaches (e.g., spatial management, mariculture, selective fishing, fishing closures), with differences arising primarily due to diverging worldviews.
It recommends local application of First Nations’ traditional management strategies to “provide opportunities to collaboratively engage in adaptive ecosystem-based management and to coordinate efforts to attain conservation objectives.”
They give an example of how the Nisga’a Nation have ensured their equal partnership in management by employing traditional fish wheel technology to monitor and assess stocks and by leveraging traditional ecosystem-based management practices that could be applied to plan long-term objectives and management approaches.
It concludes by saying that joint-management will not only work to reduce the impact of climate change but also head off potential conflict.
Through such joint-management regimes, traditional fisheries management strategies could be applied to advance localized research directives and to reduce impacts on stocks under unprecedented environmental change. Moreover, the risk of conflict over declining resources underlines the need to establish common and equitable ground to ensure successful joint management of fisheries, and to leverage collective expertise.
The United States Coast Guard says the US and Canadian Coast Guards will “conduct a towing evolution using a State of Alaska Emergency Towing System” on Friday afternoon off Juneau, Alaska.
The participating vessels are the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Service Vessel and Ice Strengthened Medium Navaids Tender CCGS Bartlett and the US Coast Guard cutter USGC Maple. Like the Barlett, the Maple is also a buoy tender.
In 2014, when the Russian vessel Simushir was adrift off Haida Gwaii, the towing system on the Canadian Coast Guard’s Gordon Reid was inadequate and the line snapped. A commercial tug was hired to take the Simushir into port at Prince Rupert. As Northwest Coast Energy News reported in October, 2014, the US Coast Guard deployed the Alaska Towing System to Haida Gwaii but it wasn’t used at that time despite a record of success by the US Coast Guard in towing vessels off Alaska waters.
A “devastating megathrust earthquake” could hit Haida Gwaii sometime in the future, according to Canadian and US studies carried out after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake off Haida Gwaii on Oct. 27, 2012 and the 7.5 magnitude quake off Craig, Alaska, a few weeks later on Jan. 5, 2013.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, both accompanied by major tsunamis are recent examples of “great” (higher than magnitude 8.0) megathrust earthquakes. Most of the concern on the west coast has been the likelihood of a megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia Fault on the Juan de Fuca plate that stretches from northern California to the middle of Vancouver Island.
The 2012 Haida Gwaii main shock was the second largest seismic event in Canada since the establishment of a modern seismograph network. The first was the 1949 Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 That 1949 Haida Gwaii earthquake was a strike-slip event, where the plates move side-to-side, similar to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and other quakes on the San Andreas Fault in California.
The 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake is characterized in the studies as a “mini-megathrust” event, where part of the crust is pushed upward, meaning that a larger megathrust could have much more destructive consequences from both the earthquake and a possible tsunami.
Complex system of faults
The new studies show that the Pacific and North America plate boundary off the coast of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska creates a system of faults capable of producing very large earthquakes. The scientists conclude that while the two earthquakes in 2012 and 2013 released strain built up over years on the tectonic plates, those events did not release strain along the Queen Charlotte Fault off the west coast of Haida Gwaii. That means the fault remains the likely source of a future large earthquake.
A special issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), released Monday, April 6, 2015, contains 19 scientific and technical papers, outlining the results of the work carried out over the past two years.
The team estimated the rupture dimension of the 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake to be about 120 kilometres long at a depth of about 30 kilometres.
The Craig earthquake ruptured the Queen Charlotte fault over a distance of more than 100 kilometres and at a depth of about 20 kilometres.
The two areas are joined in what is called the Queen Charlotte Fairweather Fault System. To the south the Queen Charlotte Fault also interacts with the Juan de Fuca plate that stretches from Vancouver Island to northern California.
“The study of these two quakes revealed rich details about the interaction between the Pacific and North America Plates, advancing our understanding of the seismic hazard for the region,” said Thomas James, research scientist at Geological Survey of Canada.
Two faults off Haida Gwaii
The studies conclude that the interaction between the plates off Haida Gwaii is much more complex than previously believed. Before the 2012 earthquake, the Queen Charlotte Fault, a strike-slip fault similar to the San Andreas Fault in California, was believed to be the dominating tectonic structure in the area. The 2012 tremor confirmed the existence of a previously suspected thrust fault beneath what is called the “Queen Charlotte Terrace,” to the west of the Queen Charlotte Fault, where the Pacific plate is sliding at a low angle below the North American plate.
The Queen Charlotte Terrace, which is about a kilometre below the surface of the ocean, is built up of layers of sediment, several kilometres thick, scraped off the oceanic plate as it subducts under the North American plate. It may also include some fragments of oceanic crust. For most of the terrace, it is “present as a clearly defined linear feature,” but the study adds: “north of about 53.5° N, a complex pattern of ridges and valleys appears.”
The earthquake was “essentially a mini-megathrust earthquake along the dipping plate interface of a subduction system,” one of the scientific papers says. The epicenter of the Haida Gwaii main shock was located about five kilometres landward (northeast) of the Queen Charlotte Fault. That probably means that the rupture was near the bottom of the locked plates, where the plate motion’s side to side movement is also thrusting downward. Significant aftershocks appeared to cluster on the periphery of the main rupture zone with most of the aftershocks occurring seaward to the west.
The scientists used GPS observations of crustal motion to locate the earthquake’s rupture offshore to the west of Haida Gwaii.
The situation off Haida Gwaii is complex because while the Pacific plate is converging with the North American plate at a rate of 15 to 20 millimetres a year, at the same time the two plates are slipping by each other toward the north northwest at angle of about 20 degrees at a rate of about 50 millimetres a year.
Honn Kao, a seismologist with the Geological Survey of Canada said, “This was an event the thrust interface of the plate boundary system, confirming that there is a subduction system in the Haida Gwaii area.
“The implication of a confirmed subduction zone is that in addition to the Queen Charlotte Fault, we now have another source which can produce devastating megathrust earthquakes in the area,” said Kao.
The study of the Haida Gwaii tremor looked at the causative faults, the rupture processes and depths of the main shock and sequence of strong aftershocks.
The Haida Gwaii earthquake generated a significant tsunami that left deposits indicating run-up exceeding 3 metres (maximum 13 metres) in a number of bays and inlets along about 230 kilometres along the west coast of Haida Gwaii. In Hawaii, a 0.8 metre wave was measured on a tide gauge.
In Queen Charlotte City perceptible shaking lasted for one and half to two minutes, with very strong shaking for about 30 seconds. The earthquake was felt as far away as Yukon Territory, Alberta, and Montana.
The study says “Damage was limited, in part owing to the sparse population, but also because of the seismic resistance of the generally low rise, wood-frame buildings on the islands. Felt intensities were at expected values close to the source zone, but regional intensities were smaller than predicted.”
The Haida Gwaii rupture also shook southeastern Alaska. The northwest direction of ground motion then may have influenced the timing of the Craig earthquake a few weeks later in January 2013. That earthquake occurred farther north in southeast Alaska, where relative plate motion is nearly parallel to the Queen Charlotte fault.
The Haida Gwaii aftershocks clustered around the periphery of the rupture zone, both on the seaward and landward side of the plate boundary and reflected what the study calls “normal faulting behavior–caused by the bending, extending or stretching of rock– rather than the thrust faulting of the main shock.” The pattern of aftershocks is similar to those observed after the 2011 Japanese megathrust earthquake.
“Our observations of normal faulting imply that the main shock of the Haida Gwaii earthquake dramatically altered the stress field in the rupture zone, especially in a neighboring region,” Kao said.
The distribution of aftershocks occurred to the north of a previously identified seismic gap where large earthquakes have not occurred in historic times. The gap is located to the south of the where 1949 magnitude 8.1 Queen Charlotte earthquake ruptured.
Though the Haida Gwaii earthquake may have activated some part of the Queen Charlotte Fault, Kao said, it was limited and did not relieve stress along the seismic gap.
The study concludes:
The Haida Gwaii event confirmed substantial seismic and tsunami hazard from large thrust events on the plate margin along the southern Queen Charlotte fault. It occurred where relatively young oceanic lithosphere under thrusts North America and in some ways is an analog for the much larger megathrust earthquakes known to occur on the Cascadia subduction zone to the south, where the young Juan de Fuca plate and other small plates subduct beneath North America. The Haida Gwaii earthquake had a complex pattern of main shock rupture and aftershocks and a large tsunami.
Further study needed
The Geological Survey of Canada plans further studies to understand the formations off Haida Gwaii.
One question to ask is if there are any records of major earthquake events in the past history of Haida Gwaii. The study notes that the impact of the tsunami was relatively minor “in this region with steep rocky coastlines.” That means there are limited sources of coastal sediments that can be checked for past events. It adds: “Low-elevation lakes, ponds, and bogs may offer the best opportunities for paleotsunami studies” warning that large earthquakes in the past that produced tsunamis may have left little evidence in the “paleoseismic record of Haida Gwaii and similar settings worldwide.”
Megathrust earthquakes occur at subduction zones at destructive plate boundaries where one tectonic plate is subducted (forced underneath) by another. These interplate earthquakes are the planet’s most powerful, with moment magnitudes that can exceed 9.0. Since 1900, all earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have been megathrust earthquakes. During the rupture, one side of the fault is pushed upwards relative to the other, and it is this type of movement that is known as thrust. The displacement of the ocean in a thrust can trigger a tsunami.
A transform fault is one where the motion is predominantly horizontal. Those faults end abruptly and are connected on both ends to other faults, ridges, or subduction zones. The best-known (and most destructive) are those on land at the margins of tectonic plates. Transform faults are the only type of strike-slip faults at plate boundaries show strike-slip or side-to-side in movement.
Queen Charlotte Terrace
The Queen Charlotte Terrace is a 25 kilometre wide zone of built up marine sediment immediately west of the active Queen Charlotte fault. The crust is about 12 kilometres thick at the terrace. On Haida Gwaii, the earth’s crust is 18 kilometres thick at the eastern edge. On the BC mainland the crust is in excess of 30 kilometres thick.
The 1949 Haida Gwaii quake was one of the largest in the recorded history of North America.
The largest known earthquake along the coast was the megathrust event on the Cascadia fault on January 26, 1700 where the Juan de Fuca plate ruptured for about 1,000 kilometres along from what is now northern California to Vancouver Island, estimated at magnitude 9.0. The dating is based on a tsunami that hit Japan that had no associated local earthquake as well studies of tree rings from the remains of trees downed in the tsunami.
Three studies of the geology of Douglas Channel are near completion and publication, according to Natural Resources Canada. That news comes as studies, released today, warn of a major megathrust earthquake on the fault west of Haida Gwaii.
Northwest Coast Energy News asked the Geological Survey of Canada if there were any recent updates available after the agency said that a survey had located a “possible fault” on Hawkesbury Island during studies for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel.
Natural Resources Canada responded with a statement: “NRCan continues to conduct research studies in the area, including study of possible faults. Three scientific expeditions have been completed on board Coast Guard research ships. The first two reports are in the final stages of editing, and will be published in the coming months. The third expedition was just completed; therefore the third report will be available later.”
More recently there were slope failures nearer to Kitimat. The first slope failure occurred on October 17, 1974, triggering a 2.4 metre tsunami at low tide. Then on April 27, 1975 there was a second slope failure near low tide on the northeast slope of the Kitimat Arm that generated an 8.2 metre tsunami. The 1975 tsunami destroyed the Northland Navigation dock near Kitimat and damaged the Haisla First Nation docks at Kitamaat Village.
Thomas James, of the Geological Survey told Northwest Coast Energy news about the team’s finding on the Haida Gwaii earthquake: “The studies focused on the Haida Gwaii and Craig earthquakes which happened at the Pacific and North American plate boundary, west of Haida Gwaii, so east of Haida Gwaii there’s no comparable plate boundaries that gives rise of historic sieismisticity.”
As well as the fact that recent studies say the mainland margin coastal zone has had very little historical seismicity, it adds no currently active faults have been identified. A study ten years ago identified some very ancient faults which have not been active since the Eocene, about 33 to 56 million years ago.
GPS studies show that in northwestern British Columbia coastal block is moving northeast at the rate of just 5 millimetres a year.
Bob McLeod, who recently retired as the District of Kitimat’s emergency coordinator, told Northwest Coast Energy News: “I think we’ve done quite a bit. One of the biggest issues in the first one was trying to get information out. We’ve come a long way on that. Whether you reach everyone or not, that’s another thing, because you never reach everybody. One of the critical things to me is getting the information out so you avoid all this Facebook, Twitter speculating and rumour. The communications aspect has improved a hundred fold.
“We did more work on the mapping and planning. Over the course of the last year, there were a lot of meetings with industry and various stakeholders, discussing emergency preparedness in general but touching on some of these other things as well.
“One of the things we did was to try to set up some shelter points. We have an agreement with the Baptist Church, the Catholic Church and the Seventh Day Adventists. They’re strategically located and could be gathering points for the various neighborhoods if necessary.
“We’ve also done quite a lot of work on Riverlodge as a group lodging centre, thinking in terms of an earthquake where there may be damage and you have to move people.
“We did look at the evacuation planning and we’ve had a couple of exercises involving that, looking strategically about how can you move people from certain neighborhoods, asking which neighborhoods would be at the most risk if you ended up with a tsunami situation.
As for tsunamis, McLeod said, “From everything we’ve heard and been told, tsunamis in extremely deep water like that is not going to be as dangerous as one in shallower water, but the possibility is still there.
“The thrusts are the killers when it comes to tsunamis, but there is a very good warning system on the tsunamis. We do get very very rapid feedback on the earthquakes.
“The only danger in that regard is if you have a severe earthquake and you have part of a mountain drop into the salt chuck, you’re going to get a massive wave and you’re going to get no warning whatsoever, like the Moon Bay collapse in the seventies.
“The emergency plan is in good shape. We scheduled a number of exercises last year through training programs.
“One of the things I personally push is personal preparedness. I think as a community, we fail greatly at that. That was evident even during the snowstorm. People are not just prepared to look after themselves, it’s unfortunate. You just have to keep chipping away.”
Last week, Northwest Coast Energy News asked Rio Tinto Alcan and the Haisla Nation Council if either could comment on updated earthquake or tsunami response plans. So we have received no answers.
On Monday, October 20, 2014, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, stood in the House of Commons during Question Period and proved she is not up for the job.
Answering questions from Opposition MPs about the incident of the Russian container ship, Simushir, which drifted dangerously close to the coast of Haida Gwaii, Shea got up and read a prepared script, a script with answers which ignored centuries of the laws and custom of the sea, as well as Canada’s own laws and treaty obligations, answers probably written by what are now known as “the kids in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
There was a time in this country when some ministers of the Crown took their responsibilities seriously. That idea that has decayed over the years and now has been gutted by the adminstration of Stephen Harper. As Ottawa pundits have noted recently, only a small handful of cabinet ministers in the Harper government have any real responsibility and only those are permitted to answer questions by themselves in the Commons. According to most Ottawa insiders, the less important ministers, like Shea, are basically told what to do by the prime minister’s office.
If the House of Commons under Harper could fall any lower, Shea’s attitude (or more likely the PMO’s attitude) on ship and coastal safety takes the Commons and ministerial responsibility to a new low—the bottom of the sea.
Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley, who represents Haida Gwaii first asked. “Mr. Speaker, on Friday, a Russian ship carrying more than 500 million litres of bunker fuel lost all power just off the coast of Haida Gwaii.The Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, was hundreds of kilometres away, and it took almost 20 hours for it to reach the drifting ship. Thankfully, favourable winds helped keep the ship from running aground, and a private American tugboat eventually towed it to shore. Is the minister comfortable with a marine safety plan that is based on a U.S. tugboat and blind luck in order to keep B.C.’s coast safe?”
“Mr. Speaker, luck had nothing to do with the situation. The Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters in very rough weather. The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry. We are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control in very difficult conditions until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.”
Cullen tried again:
“Mr. Speaker, if the government really wanted to show its gratitude to the Canadian Coast Guard maybe it would not have cut $20 million and 300 personnel from its budget. Even after the Gordon Reid arrived, its tow cable snapped three times. The Russian ship was only about a third as big as the huge supertankers that northern gateway would bring to the very same waters off the west coast. How can Conservatives, especially B.C. Conservatives, back their government’s plan to put hundreds of oil supertankers off the B.C. coast when we do not even have the capacity to protect ourselves right now?”
Shea replied: “Mr. Speaker, this Russian ship lost power outside of Canadian waters. The Canadian Coast Guard responded and kept the situation under control, under very difficult conditions, until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.
We as a government have committed $6.8 billion through the renewal of the Coast Guard fleet, which demonstrates our support for the safety and security of our marine industries and for our environment.”
Next to try was Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay from Cardigan.
“Mr. Speaker, the Russian container ship that drifted off the west coast raises serious concerns about the response capability of the Canadian Coast Guard. This serious situation was only under control when a U.S. tugboat arrived.”
Again Shea read her script: “This Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters. On the west coast, the private sector provides towing services to the marine industry.’
The final attempt by Liberal Joyce Murray, from Vancouver Quadra, also led to a scripted answer. “ this was a private towing vessel that came to tow the vessel that was in trouble.”
Shea’s answers, especially her repeated reference to “territorial waters” set off a series of “What the…?” posts on Twitter from west coast mariners and sailors, wondering if Shea knew anything about maritime law.
The first question one must ask was Shea actually not telling the whole truth to the House of Commons (which is forbidden by House rules) when she said the Simushir was outside Canadian waters? The Haida Nation, in a news release, (pdf) says the Simushir was “drifting about 12 Nautical Miles North West of Gowgaia Bay located off Moresby Island off Haida Gwaii.”
International law defines territorial waters as a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.
As Shea’s own DFO website says Canada has exercised jurisdiction over the territorial sea on its east and west coasts out to 12 nautical miles since 1970, first under the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act and now under the Oceans Act. The baselines for measuring the territorial sea were originally set in 1967. While the exact position can and should be confirmed by the ship’s navigation logs and GPS track, it is clear that the container vessel could have been at one point after it lost power within Canada’s territorial waters.
Even if the Simushir wasn’t exactly within territorial waters, the ship was in what again Shea’s own DFO website calls the “contiguous zone “an area of the sea adjacent to and beyond the territorial sea. Its outer limit measures 24 nautical miles from the normal baseline zone.” In any case, the Simushir was well within what Canada says is its “exclusive economic zone” which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline.
Law of the Sea
So here is the first question about Shea’s competence.
How could she not know that the Simushir was well within Canadian jurisdiction, as defined by her own department’s website? Even if the minister hadn’t read the departmental website, wasn’t she properly briefed by DFO officials?
The second point, is that whether or not the Simushir was in actually in Canada’s territorial waters is irrelevant. Custom going back centuries, and now the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and even the Canada Shipping Act all require the master of a capable vessel to render assistance once that vessel receives a distress call or sees that another vessel is in distress.
… the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.
And the Canada Shipping Act requires
Every qualified person who is the master of a vessel in any waters, on receiving a signal from any source that a person, a vessel or an aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to render assistance and shall, if possible, inform the persons in distress or the sender of the signal.
The master of a vessel in Canadian waters and every qualified person who is the master of avessel in any waters shall render assistance to every person who is found at sea and in danger of being lost.
Note the phrase any waters. Not just in Canadian territorial waters as the Shea, the minister responsible for the ocean seemed to imply in her Commons answers.
That once again calls into question Shea’s fitness to be a minister of the Crown.
If she did not know about the UN conventions on the law of the sea, of which Canada is signatory, or the Canada Shipping Act, she is not up for the job as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.
If, as the minister responsible for oceans, she knew the law and was told by the PMO to mislead the House of Commons, she is is irresponsible and MPs should ask the Speaker if she actually broke the rules of the House.
Regulation Seven of the Annex on Search and Rescue Services states
Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.
Note that the regulation does not say within territorial waters, but “around its coasts.”
Canada has always rendered assistance to distressed vessels not just up and down the coast but around the world. Take the case of HMCS Chartlottetown. On February 3, 2008, HMCS Chartlottetown on anti-piracy and anti-terrorist patrol in the North Arabian Sea, spotted a rusty barge with some men stranded on the deck. It turned out the men were from Pakistan and that the vessel towing the barge had sunk with all hands, leaving only the men on the barge alive. The North Arabian Sea is far out side Canadian territorial waters.
On must wonder then if the Harper Government, or at least Minister Shea is suggesting that this country ignore centuries of maritime law and custom and, in the future, pass that barge by because it was not in Canadian waters?
Perhaps buried in the next omnibus bill we will see the Harper Government restrict rescue at sea to Canadian territorial waters. Farfetched? Well that is what Minister Shea’s answer in the Commons seems to suggest.
Given the cutbacks to the Coast Guard services over the past few years, and if there are going to be large tankers, whether LNG or bitumen, on the west coast, it is an open question whether or not the Harper government has actually made those “arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.”
Now comes the question of the use of the tug Barbara Foss and the two Smit tugs that later joined to tow the Simushir into Prince Rupert harbour.
It is the responibility of the owner or manager of a disabled vessel, large or small, to contract with a tug or towing service to safely take it back to port. But, and it’s a big but, the tow begins only when it is safe to do so, if there is a danger of the ship foundering, sinking or running aground, it is the obligation of all the responding vessels to render assistance, not just the tug contracted to do the job.
(There are reports that the Simushir owners chose to hire the Barbara Foss rather than the heavy duty Smit tugs available at Prince Rupert. Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan told Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail that there are about 80 boats on the west coast, capable of heavy-duty towing, but noted that as in the case of the Simushir, those vessels may not be available when needed)
While around the Lower Mainland of BC, even a small boat that has run out of gas or has engine trouble can get commercial assistance from many service providers, the same is not true of the north coast, or at Haida Gwaii, where are no such regular services. Seapan’s Whitworth told The Globe and Mail there is often a 6,000 horsepower log hauling tug that works off Haida Gwaii. but he also noted that it would be too expensive to have a tug permanently moored on the archipelago.
That means mariners who run out of gas or have engine trouble, say on Douglas Channel, have to call Prince Rupert Coast Guard radio and request assistance either from nearby vessels or from the volunteer Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service. RCMSAR policy says that a the rescue boat will not tow a vessel if “commercial assistance is reguarly available.” If commercial assistance is not available RCMSAR is only obligated to tow the boat as far as a “safe haven,” where the boat can tie up safely or contract for that “commercial assistance.”
Here on Douglas Channel the safe haven is usually Kitimat harbour and thus during the summer frequently either a good Samaritan vessel or RCMSAR take the disabled vessel all the way to MK Bay.
Shea’s pat answer to the Opposition questions only betrayed the fact that the east coast minister is woefully ignorant of conditions on the northern coast of British Columbia.
In the old days, a minister who screwed up so badly would be asked to resign. That never happens any more. Ministerial responsibility has sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The bigger picture question seems to be. Why, if the Harper government is so anxious to get hydrocarbons, whether bitumen or natural gas to “tide water” does it keep going out of its way to show its contempt for the people who live on Canada’s west coast?
A note for the voters of Prince Edward Island, where Shea is the member for Egmont. Consider this, if a ship gets into trouble outside the 12 mile limit, trouble that could threaten your beautiful red sandy beaches, you’re likely on your own.