Squamish's Gio Roberti climbs whereof he speaks.
A rock climber, Roberti, is also a landslide expert and the climate risk section head at Minerva Intelligence Inc, an artificial intelligence startup that focuses on creating software/AI solutions.
Its technology has identified landslide susceptibility areas, for example.
As a PhD student, Roberti worked with SFU professor Glyn Williams-Jones, studying Pemberton's Mount Meager.
The Chief caught up with the local to learn more about what Squamish can expect as climate change continues to impact our community, and the rest of the world.
"[With] the global effect of climate change, we are experiencing more extreme weather events... when it is hot, it is hotter than it has ever been before; when it rains, it might rain more than it ever rained before, and so on," he said. "Drought can last longer, and with snow, it might snow more."
The landscape is not used to these kinds of extreme events.
"So when some extreme events like the heat dome [in late June] happen, the landscape adjusts with rockfalls and when it rains there will be more flooding and when it is dry there will be more chance of wildfires spreading, for example," he said.
On June 27, in the middle of the heat wave, there was a rockfall at the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief.
There is a known correlation between heat and landslides, Roberti said.
"This rockfall and if you remember the Joffre landslide [in 2019] and the Mount Meager landslide [in 2010], those all happened during heat waves, though for different reasons," he said.
For the rockfall on the Stawamus Chief last month, the heat wave caused the rock to expand.
"The rock expands and shrinks day and night with the temperature variation, and this can cause a rockfall, and that is what happened on the Chief," he said.
With Mount Meager and Joffre, a heat wave caused rapid snowmelt.
"The snow became water, and then the water pushed the rock away... causing the landslide," he said, noting there are many ways landslides and rockfalls can happen.
"Climate change is affecting all these different triggers," he said. "That is why you can have a Joffre-style landslide that is caused by snow melting — but is still caused by heat — or a rockfall from the Chief that is caused by rock expansion because heat expands things."
Freeze-thaw cycles can also trigger rockfalls, he said.
What does this mean for climbing?
Roberti said whenever recreationalists are in the mountains, they should be aware there are certain risks, including rockfalls.
"The way in which people mitigate risks in the mountains is maybe going faster, or going very early in the morning, or not going at all if the conditions are not good," he said, noting there should be the same attitude to extreme heat as with snow avalanche dangers in the winter.
He said avoid being out climbing on the rock or in the mountains during the hottest time of the day.
"In my opinion, the fact that the Chief is such a popular place, it would be worth doing a proper geohazard assessment," he said.
Sensors could be placed on the rock to measure how much the rock is heating and deforming under the heat, he said.
Something like this was done in Yosemite National Park by the U.S. Geological Survey, he noted.
"A similar study could be done here," he said. "You could take a popular route like the Grand Wall that goes up the Split Pillar. You could go, put some sensors there and see how the Split Pillar moves given the heat wave, and then you could make some assessments and decide how safe or unsafe it is to climb that route."
BC Parks response
BC Parks told The Squamish Chief it has undertaken two geotechnical surveys of rockfall occurring in Stawamus Chief Park in the past six years.
"We will continue to perform these surveys after events and follow the suggested recommendations. Rockfall is extremely difficult to predict, and the last two events are thought to have occurred for different reasons. We are also open to research applications for ongoing study and monitoring," reads a statement from BC Parks.
The Chief long term
There is no danger of the Stawamus Chief crumbling, even longer-term, Roberti said.
"There will be flakes falling off every now and again... but they are small flakes coming off. The Chief won't collapse like Joffre did because it is way better rock quality. It is a stronger rock. So it might peel off pieces of rock, but it won't collapse altogether."
What happens on the Chief due to climate change won't be as dramatic as in more alpine areas, he said.
"That will be more dramatic with plants and animals and everything. The Chief... won't change climatic zones. It will kind of be in the same climatic zone, while in the alpine, we see a climatic zone shifting, so plants that were growing up to 2,000 metres, for example, will be growing higher because the ice is gone now, so there will be a shift in the climatic zones in the mountain."
Bigger landslides may happen more frequently with climate change, but there is such a complex system involved, that it is very hard to predict what will happen and when.
"For sure, in the mountains when the glaciers are melting is the most unstable place. The conditions are more variable," Roberti said.
During a heat wave, people should be cautious about their choices going into the alpine, he said.
Mount Garibaldi is a volcano, Roberti noted, so the concern is not just about rockfall.
"We don't know enough about the Garibaldi volcano," he said. "There are not enough studies to say if it may erupt again or what is going on around there. So, we can't really say much about it," he said.
Usually, in geology, assumptions are made about the future based on the past, but with climate change, the past isn't the best predictor of the future, he said.
With Garibaldi so close to Squamish, he said it would be worth having a dedicated array of closely spaced sensors just on the volcano and a couple of scientists studying and monitoring it full time.
In his homeland of Italy, he said Mount Vesuvius has two million people living in its immediate vicinity, but there is staff dedicated to monitoring it full time.
"Garibaldi, given that it is so close to Squamish, it would be worth more attention," he said.
BC Parks told The Chief it does not have the expertise, mandate or resources to study volcanic activity.
"Scientific research activities in BC Parks often occur through universities or other researchers and this provides the best opportunity to collect data of this nature," a spokesperson for BC Parks said in an email.
Asked what concerns him most about the increasing impact of climate change, Roberti said flooding.
"It happens more often, so if you have changes in precipitation, you have more intense rainstorms, you have more intense heat, and this melts the snow faster. If you combine the spring freshet with a big rainfall, you might have lots of flooding."
Sea level rise is also a concern for all coastal communities.
While there is often a push to prevent climate change, there is also a need for awareness that the environment is changing now and conditions can be more variable than we are used to.
"So be more ready for extreme weather events," Roberti said. "People should be prepared for an emergency."
He also said citizens should support politicians who have climate change on their agenda.
**Please note, this story has been corrected since it was first posted in order to more accurately reflect what Minerva Intelligence Inc, does. It provides software/AI solutions, not engineering solutions as first reported.