Dormant west coast volcanoes have explosive potential

Although dormant, four west coast volcanoes have the potential for explosive activity.

Expert says dormant volcanoes are known to catch people unawares

Kids in Puerto Varas, south of Santiago, watch smoke and ash rise from Calbuco. (Carlos Gutierrez/Reuters)

A volcanic eruption in southern Chile has forced the evacuation of more than 4,000 people. It was yet another reminder of the volatility and swiftness of a volcanic explosion.

"I'm surprised, but not that it caught us off guard," Glyn Williams-Jones told CBC's On the Coast. Williams-Jones, a professor at SFU and a volcanologist, says volcanoes are known for their ability to catch people by surprise.

He says it's never certain which dormant volcano may be the next big one, including those here on the West Coast.

1. Mount Baker

The iconic Mount Baker rests in Washington State. (Getty Images)

On a clear day, the towering, snow-capped image of Mount Baker can been seen from Vancouver.

Although it sits south of the border in Washington State, Williams-Jones says it's the one potential volcano that would affect the greatest population.

"In terms of risk, it would be from mudslides," he said. "

You can see all that snow and ice at the summit, so if you melt that, you can very rapidly have large mudflows and rivers. If you have even stronger activity you can potentially even have ash affect the Vancouver airport."

Despite the threat, Williams-Jones says the mountain is being well monitored by the U.S. Geological Service and that it hasn't shown any great activity since the 1970s.

2. Mount Meager

Located in the Coast Mountains of southwestern British Columbia near Pemberton, the dormant Mount Meager is considered a complex volcano.

"It's definitely the largest recent volcanic eruption in Canada. That was exemplified by an eruption about 2,500 years ago," says Williams-Jones. He says during that explosion ash carried as far as Alberta.

3. Tseax Cone

The Tseax cone remains an active volcano with a potential threat to the surrounding wildlife. (Miguel Borges/ Flickr)

Located northwest of Terrace, B.C., the Tseax Cone is Canada's youngest volcanic eruption. The explosion is believed to have occurred sometime between 1750 and 1775.

"It was a lava flow rather than a big explosion. It is also responsible for Canada's second largest natural disaster with about 2,000 people being killed."

Williams-Jones says it's not certain exactly how the volcano killed the population, although there's mention of the possibility of poison smoke or volcanic gas being emitted from the ground.

4. Mount Edziza

In Williams-Jones' words, this potentially "beast" of a volcano is located in northwestern B.C. in Stikine country. Mount Edziza is an example of subglacial volcanism, a volcano that grows under the ice.

The volcanic system remains dormant, but because it's quite far north in a less populated region, it is not as well monitored as others.

Risk of major explosion possible but unlikely

Glyn William-Jones says while an explosion is theoretically possible from any of the volcanic systems, anything happening in the near future is unlikely. Despite that, the possibility of volcanic action still exists.

"Whenever you see these kinds of events, they can go from zero to sixty in a short amount of time. As we've seen in Calbuco, there was very little warning and all of a sudden it was erupting."

"Just because we don't have anything currently bubbling over, isn't to say that sometime in the future we might not have something."

To hear more, click the audio labelled: 4 dormant volcanoes close to home that may be waiting to explode.

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