Vancouver, Fraser River Delta

Vancouver, Fraser River Delta

by | Dec 10, 2021

Vancouver is a coastal seaport located on the Burrard Peninsula, between Burrard Inlet to the north and the Fraser River to the south, about 60 miles (97 km) north-northeast of Victoria and 38 miles (61 km) east-northeast of Nanaimo, British Columbia. The city is named after Captain George Vancouver who explored the inner harbor of Burrard Inlet in 1792. The archaeological record indicates that aboriginal people were living in the area from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. The city is located in the traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tseil-Waututh (Burrard) people of the Coast Salish tribes. The first Europeans to arrive in Burrard Inlet were led by the Spanish explorer José María Narváez in 1791, followed closely by Vancouver. In 1808, the North West Company trader Simon Fraser and his crew traveled down the Fraser River and became the first known Europeans to set foot on the site of the present-day city. In 1827, the first permanent European settlement in the region was established at Fort Langley, and in 1859, the first urban center was founded at New Westminster. A sawmill was established at Moodyville in 1863, which began the city’s long relationship with logging. It was quickly followed by mills owned by Captain Edward Stamp on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. The Hastings Mill became the nucleus around which Vancouver formed. The original settlement was named Gastown and developed on clear cuts of the Hastings Mill property and centered around a makeshift tavern built in 1867. From that first enterprise, other stores and some hotels quickly appeared along the waterfront. Gastown became formally laid out as a registered townsite dubbed Granville in 1870. This site, with its natural harbor, was selected in 1884 as the terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the government gave the railway more than 6,178 acres (2,500 ha) of crown land at the new terminus. In 1886, the provincial legislature incorporated the city of Vancouver. Today, the city is the most populous in the province and has the third-largest population in Canada and the highest population density.

The city of Vancouver is situated on a deposit of glacial till over 1,000 feet (305 m) thick called the Burrard Uplands with elevations up to 500 feet (152 m), which is bounded to the north by Burrard Inlet and to the south by the Fraser River. The Fraser River is about 851 miles (1,370 km) long and drains a watershed of over 57,822,659 acres (23,400,000 ha). It is the largest river reaching the west coast of Canada where it discharges into the Strait of Georgia, a semi-enclosed marine basin located between Vancouver Island and the mainland. At the close of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet covering the coastal region started wasting and receded northwest up the Strait of Georgia and east across a glacier eroded plain called the Fraser Lowlands. As lowland areas were freed of their ice cover, they were invaded by the sea, and large deltas and submarine outwash fans were constructed as sediment-loaded glacial meltwater poured into the sea. By about 11,000 years ago, much of the Fraser Lowland had filled with sediment and emerged from the sea. At the same time, large amounts of meltwater and sediment were funneled into the Fraser River valley from the snout of the piedmont glacier now restricted by the gap in the Coast Range. Many isolated masses of stagnant ice may have persisted west of the active ice front either partially exposed or completely buried in glacial till. At this time, most of the Fraser River delta west of the Coast Range did not exist, and instead, the area was part of the Strait of Georgia, Point Roberts Peninsula was an island. By about 10,500 years ago, the Fraser River emptied into a fjord extending northeast to present Pitt Lake. The river built a delta across and up Pitt Fjord, eventually isolating Pitt Lake from the sea. Shortly thereafter, the Fraser River extended its floodplain westward and began draining directly into the Strait of Georgia. Stagnating and disintegrating remnants of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet supplied meltwater and sediment to the Fraser River until perhaps as late as 10,000 years ago when ice completely disappeared from lowland valleys and the British Columbia interior. During deglaciation, prodigious quantities of sediment were transported by meltwater streams, and as a result, the Fraser River transported much larger amounts of sediment to the Fraser Lowland at the close of the Pleistocene than it does today, and the Fraser River floodplain rapidly prograded westward. The river has constructed a delta with a combined intertidal and supratidal area of about 247,105 acres (100,000 ha) during the 10,000-11,000 years since the disappearance of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.

The glacial till of the Burrard Uplands are underlain by rocks of the Kitsilano formation and the Burrard formation. The Kitsilano formation is about 1500 feet (457 m) thick and consists of sandstone and shale overlying conglomerate rock that formed during the late Eocene and early Oligocene. The Burrard formation consists of conglomerate rock with a series of overlying layers of sandstone and shale deposited in shallow water during the middle Eocene, directly on top of the granitic rock of the Coast Range batholith. The Burrard and Kitsilano formations are intruded by a number of volcanic dikes and igneous rocks. The largest vertical dike which is about 50 feet (15 m) wide and 200 feet (61 m) high, forms a prominent basalt cliff at Prospect Point on the southern shore of the first narrows in Burrard Inlet. Another vertical dike, which is exposed only at low tide, occurs at Siwash Rock on the western shore of Stanley Park. The surface glacial till from the Pleistocene represent at least two glacial advances and two retreats. The more recent upper layer was deposited during the Late Pleistocene and contains many marine shell fossils. The lower layer of till is interbedded with fine sediments such as clay, silt, and sand indicating that this was deposited in a shallow sea with water levels possibly 800 feet (244 m) higher than present-day sea level. Prior to European settlement, the lands of the Fraser River delta consisted of estuarine marshes with bands of vegetation extending landward parallel to the advancing edge of river deposits. Grassland communities established themselves where the land was not flooded daily. On even less flooded land some shrub communities developed, and at higher elevations a forest of Sitka spruce. Today, the delta looks very different. Most of the original wet meadows, grasslands, and shrubs are gone, converted to agricultural and urban uses by hundreds of miles of levees. Agriculture has become a dominant feature of the landscape. Urban sprawl has directly destroyed vast areas of natural habitat and indirectly altered much of the rest. The population of Greater Vancouver is expected to double over the next 25 years, natural ecosystems of the Fraser River delta are in great danger. Even though the delta has been dramatically changed over the last 100 years, it still remains one of the most valuable natural areas in Canada. There is more plant and animal diversity in British Columbia than in any other province of Canada, and the Fraser River delta contributes a significant share of the biodiversity found in the province. Read more here and here. Explore more of Vancouver and the Fraser River delta here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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