'They didn't have the data': Labrador scientist questions Mud Lake flood research

A Labrador scientist is taking issue with preliminary findings into the cause of flooding at Mud Lake.

With data available, Robert Way doesn’t believe study can draw definitive conclusion

Robert Way is a postdoctoral fellow at the Labrador Institute and a Nunatsiavut Beneficiary. (Submitted)

A Labrador scientist is taking issue with research into the cause of flooding at Mud Lake.

Robert Way — a postdoctoral fellow in physical geography who grew up on the Churchill River riverbank and now works out of Memorial University's Labrador Institute — says he doesn't believe the people behind the study were given enough data to rule out Muskrat Falls as a contributing factor.

"The current state of monitoring [on the river] is actually quite poor," he said.

Aerial views of Mud Lake show houses under water, empty after residents were relocated to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

In their preliminary findings, researchers attributed the May flood to heavy November rains and a quick spring thaw.

Way says the biggest contributor was an ice jam that backed up five to six feet of water into Mud Lake.

"They didn't have the data to be able to look at the ice jam and whether that was related to anything upstream at Muskrat Falls or Churchill Falls," he said.

Dave Brown of KGS Group, left, and Karl-Erich Lindenschmidt of the University of Saskatchewan, right, explain their initial findings to area residents on Thursday. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"And the reason they didn't have the type of data that was needed was because it wasn't being collected."

According to Way, ice thickness data is collected once a year, around March, from six testing sites that go in a line across the river near the Mud Lake crossing — not the year-round, real-time monitoring Way said Nalcor committed to.

"These measurements would have shown that the ice thicknesses along that section, at the mouth of the river, were anomalously thick last winter," he said.

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project has employed up to 6,000 people at peak construction, and will account for about one-third of major project spending in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2017. (Nalcor)

"If [researchers] were using this information to try and inform the likelihood of ice jamming occurring, it would have been a really high chance of it occurring, because when the ice gets really thick, it has a higher potential to jam and it's harder to push away."

Researchers explained Thursday that they would be looking to get an expedited copy of ice thickness data, usually released in October, in order to include it in the final report due later this month.

Indigenous knowledge not thoughtfully included

Way also takes issue with the lack of traditional knowledge incorporated into the research, saying it wasn't included to the degree expected from the residents or as part of the research application.

Chunks of data were missing on the timeline of events, in addition to not having information on the ice thickness variable.

Way suggested those gaps could and should have been filled with local knowledge.

"Your baseline should be that if you have people who have been in the area — and their families, for over 100 years —and that they noticed unusual things, that this should form the basis for some of your understanding of what happened," he said.

"From [the researchers'] perspective, I think they presented only, really, information from what happened climate-wise and the water levels, and then casually mentioned, 'Oh, people said it was high,' things like that."


Katie Breen

Video producer

Katie Breen makes video content for CBC in St. John's. She's been working in news for 10 years. You can reach her at

With files from Labrador Morning