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Officials investigate huge landslide on Great Whale River

BY Patrick Quinn May 9, 2021

Officials are closely monitoring the area upstream from the twin Cree and Inuit communities of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuaraapik after at least one massive landslide occurred along the Great Whale River on the morning of April 22.  

While the vast quantity of fallen trees and debris raised water levels immediately afterwards, levels have since returned to normal and officials say there is no current danger to the communities. Their elevated location about 10 metres above water level on a sandy plateau makes them highly unlikely to be affected by potential flooding.

Whapmagoostui officials said the landslide happened on an area with thick clay soils six kilometres upstream from the communities. According to Dr. Dave Petley of The Landslide Blog, the slide is about 1.6 km from the crown to the channel and about 4 km from the crown to the toe, likely impacting millions of cubic metres.

As the surrounding area remains vulnerable to further landslides, residents are cautioned to avoid river travel as well as the road beyond the Crusher Site that goes down to the Sundance Area. Neither should people obtain drinking water from the river.

“In the beginning, there were worries about an ice jam, flooding and further avalanches,” said Sonny Orr, Whapmagoostui’s economic development officer. “It seemed like a very sudden event. There were a lot of trees jutting out of the river and a lot of material projected into the river. There’s worry that other places could go down – I wouldn’t pitch my tent up there.”

It was feared that fallen debris could dam the relatively shallow part of the river and create damaging floods. Whapmagoostui Chief Robbie Kawapit told CBC that “it was very unsettling for everybody” and people were starting to panic. 

With the stability of the ice affecting an estimated 1.5 km downstream and 0.5 km upstream from the area, a major concern was the accelerated rate of ice break-up. Although the cold weather the following weekend mitigated those concerns, the warming temperatures may cause further instability.

“There were worries the ice would break up and then jam up, because it’s not ready for a normal spring breakup,” Orr told the Nation. “The river seems to be taking it, but you can’t really tell because there’s still a few kilometres of ice sitting on top. We’re going to see a lot of trees once the ice melts, so it won’t be good for using your canoe or motorboat.”

Orr speculated that warmer than usual temperatures had liquefied the clay underneath, causing the heavy land to slide off. Large landslides generally occur during the spring melt. Although this is the largest ever landslide known to have impacted Whapmagoostui, there have been previous events caused by the region’s extreme weather. 

“A couple years ago we had a big crack from the commercial centre to the arena downtown,” Orr said. “It looked like an earthquake, but it was an ice-quake, when it freezes so much it cracks from expansion. Ice expands when it freezes.”

Cree and Inuit officials from the communities are cooperating with Quebec government officials and experts from Université Laval to monitor the situation. The Kativik Regional Government said the event caused “more fear than harm” to the community but expressed concerns about the potential environmental impact. 

Special laser and radar images were taken of the area using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology. Commonly used in geology and landslide investigations, it generates precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the earth and its surface characteristics.

“With that information, our specialists will be able to analyze the type of landslide and make recommendations to the affected municipalities,” Éric Drolet, regional director for Quebec’s public security ministry in the Capitale-Nationale, Chaudière-Appalaches and Nunavikregion, told the CBC.

As the weather warms, the landslide’s repercussions could impact travel and activities around the river and surrounding area. The Whapmagoostui Facebook page has been posting aerial videos showing the extensive damage. 

“I know the ice is not that thick,” said Orr. “Before we had a false sense of security because of the snowfall sitting on the ice. You couldn’t see the areas where it might be dangerous – now we start to see some dark patches.”

Orr emphasized that the Cree and Inuit sides of the community are accustomed to coordinating their response to regional emergencies. His wife, Sarah Shem, is a radio dispatcher for the Cree Trappers’ Association, so he hears about the high volume of medical emergency calls coming from bush camps.

“It’s already challenging without having the flooding or landslide,” Orr explained. “Pay attention to the people who are in charge of the emergency and don’t call them up all the time. They’re the same people working on Covid, fires and emergency measures. Keep it a low tone for the kids – don’t exaggerate and panic.”

The Cree Health Board added that it’s normal to be affected mentally, emotionally and spiritually when the land hurts. People feeling scared or anxious by the landslide are encouraged to call the Wiichihiiwaauwin helpline at 1-833-632-4357.

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.