This Geology instructor moonlights as a volcano explorer

By Maia Odegaard, Marketing and Communications

Did you know there’s an active volcano less than three and a half hours from Vancouver? Dr. Nathalie Vigouroux-Caillibot certainly does. Nathalie is a geologist who specializes in volcanology. And when she’s not teaching, she’s exploring one of Canada’s most overlooked – and potentially dangerous – natural hazards: volcanoes.

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“When people think of Canada, they don’t think of active volcanoes, but it’s only been about 150 years since the last eruption, a volcano called Lava Fork in NW British Columbia. In geological terms, that’s less than a nanosecond,” says Nathalie, who teaches in the Geological Resources program at Douglas and is chair of the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “If it happened that recently, it could definitely happen again.”

Conducting explosive research

Nathalie Vigouroux-Caillibot

Currently, Nathalie is a part of a team of 34 researchers from seven universities in B.C. and Alberta, as well as federal scientists, studying geothermal activity at Mount Meager – roughly 160km north of Vancouver – as a possible renewable energy source for Canada. They also work with representatives from the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations to ensure survey sights are not on important ancestral sites, including ancestral burial areas.

The Federal Geological Survey project at Mount Meager was started in the 1970s, but investing in geothermal energy became a less desirable endeavour when the price of oil dropped in the following decades. With the current climate crisis, geothermal energy is of interest once again, so the project reopened and researchers conducted work from July–October 2019.

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The hottest field trips

Nathalie and has also taken her students from Douglas to the research site to analyze the hot springs connected to the volcano, where they’ve collected data on the hot spring chemistry. The goal is to survey the volcano’s activity and potential as a source of renewable geothermal energy.

While hydroelectricity is relatively inexpensive in B.C., there is value in geothermal energy exploration – geothermal plants have smaller footprints than large hydroelectric dams, lower emissions over their lifespan and provide a more stable power source than wind or solar energy.

“We’re working to increase the understanding of Mount Meager’s geothermal system,” Nathalie says. “We want to determine where there’s hot water, how much there is, how it moves around underground and many more technical details that a company would want to know before investing in the project.”

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A dangerous hobby

In addition to the potential for electricity production, Nathalie has more reasons for exploring Mount Meager. She also has a personal and professional interest in monitoring the volcano, including a working collaboration with SFU.

“It’s a big volcano, and it erupted around 2,400 years ago. The eruption sent particles of ash all the way to Alberta, so we know it was definitely a sizable eruption. If it wakes up at some point in the future, it may change the chemistry of the hot springs, including the temperature and the pH, but it could also create landslides or flooding. It’s important that we keep a close eye on Mount Meager.”

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