By Rachel Fraser

Landscapes are changing with our changing climate, and mountain communities such as ours are on the frontlines for many of these changes and their consequences. A University of Northern British Columbia research project aims to give communities tools to adapt to changing snowpacks and geohazards such as rockfalls, landslides, wildfires, and floods.

The project – Mountain Community Adaptation to Changing Snowpacks and Geohazards – is led by Dr. Joseph Shea, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, and funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS). A kick-off information and feedback session was held June 2nd in Valemount to introduce the team, present the project and generate some initial feedback.

According to the research team, the project will compile a geohazard database for the region and build a rapid response tool that can quickly collect and display data and imagery during or after a geohazard event. Easy access to real-time data on snowpack, ground movement, and climate conditions could help community leaders make quick, crucial decisions.

Currently, data is being generated in a number of disconnected official and unofficial ways, such as Valemount’s observation wells for water table depth, Provincial snow pillows, as well as backcountry users’ snowpack measurements, community members reporting slide activity from the ground, and historical weather data collected by local families. However, Shea noted there isn’t much research currently in this field in mountain communities like ours, and the purpose of the project is to fill that gap. 

The UNBC team will install a weather station at the community ski hill this fall, which will provide hourly updates on snowfall, and in the summer will provide soil moisture and precipitation measurements to use as an indicator of wildfire risk. 

Another element the project is incorporating is remote sensing – using satellites to observe the surface area of the snow coverage and track snowmelt. Sara Darychuk, PhD candidate at UNBC, spoke to her work on this at the kick-off, saying “we can detect when the snowpack actually starts melting from space, and we can say when it establishes, how long it hangs out and when it disappears. And a lot of that duration of the snow cover is really important for the health of the ecosystems and the communities here. There (are) links between wildfire severity and how long the snow stays on the ground.”

Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson says that additionally, the project team and the Village are looking at installing tilt-meters on the slope around the Swift Creek slide. These will record small-scale slope movements, as well as provide real-time observations of weather, snow depth, and soil moisture contents. He says they will also be using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging – a remote sensing method that uses light to measure distances) to monitor for further movement. The Village’s primary focus is on the watershed that supplies our drinking water, and ensuring they have back-up plans and infrastructure in place should our current water source be compromised. 

In addition to compiling instrument-generated data, the project will be doing outreach to try to gather as much of the unofficial community knowledge, “with a focus on community experiences and responses to the geohazard events that have occurred in the area” according to Shea.

Citizen scientists, observant community members and backcountry users are encouraged to participate via upcoming events, as well as submit their observations via email (see sidebar). Valemount resident Pat Williams keeps an eye on the Swift Creek slide at the start of his early morning shifts at the Shell station. From there he has a good view of the dust cloud that heralds slide activity, though he says it’s not moving much anymore. “Every time it slides, I make sure to let someone know.” 

Shea says they appreciate any information from community members regarding their observations of local geohazards, especially specific impacts they’ve experienced, and details about what preceded the events. See the sidebar for ways you can share information you may have.

The project team will be at the McBride Museum on September 15th to give a talk on geohazards and the project. Further details on this and any upcoming events will be posted on the project webpage:, as well as local McBride and Valemount Facebook groups. 

The project will partner with the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, the Village of Valemount, the Dunster Community Forest, the Valemount Community Forest, and the BC Ministry of Forests.

Ways to share your observations of geohazard activity” 

Village of Valemount: 

The Village welcomes any observations; these can be submitted using our general contact form, available on our website ( or by visiting the front desk. When a form is received, it is directed to the appropriate department for response and any required follow up.

Village of McBride: 

Observations can also be submitted using the contact page (, or calling/visiting the Village office.

UNBC project team: 

Observations can be submitted by email to
[email protected] or by participating in project outreach events, details of which will be posted at, and on local Valemount and McBride Facebook pages.

Additionally, backcountry users are encouraged to record observations through the Community Snow Observations website (, a separate project monitoring snow depth in the mountains.