Yukon parents sometimes complain there aren’t enough role models for Yukon youth.
“How can a Grade 12 student decide what to study at university when they don’t even know what jobs these courses lead to?” is how one put it recently.
It is true that there aren’t too many nuclear physicists, sitcom script writers or internet start-up billionaires in town for local youngsters to emulate. That’s not too surprising, considering that we don’t have any nuclear reactors or sitcoms and that we are at the end of a 1,500-kilometre strand of fibre optic cable that our phone company has trouble keeping lit.
But we do have rocks. Lots of them.
Which brings up geoscience. Yukonomist dragged his somewhat (OK, highly) skeptical son to the Geoscience Trade Show on Tuesday afternoon.
We were soon being amazed by a young geology whiz from the University of Alberta named Eric Thiessen. Instead of slaving away at Krusty Burger during the summer, he seems to spend his time riding in helicopters, camping out in some spectacular locales and working on slick 3D digital maps.
He told us – with obvious passion – about the Rau project’s Tiger Zone and its gold-laden oxide and sulphide minerals. It’s a tale that goes back millions of years with shifting rocks, bubbling subterranean mineral water and arsenic anomalies.
There is a large band of highly accomplished geologists in Whitehorse. They live largely unremarked among the rest of us, sort of like Harry Potter wizards hidden among geo-muggles. Just to take one example, Yukonomist’s neighbour Charlie Roots turns out to be more than just a great guy to borrow a power drill from.
There is a steady stream of young geologists from places like Harvard passing through the Roots home, visiting the Yukon to study our fascinating geology. And Charlie co-authored a paper called Calibrating the Cryogenian that appeared in Science Magazine earlier this year. If you’re interested in the really long term, it covers the Neoproterozoic era (for geo-muggles, that’s 500 million to 1 billion years ago) and the Sturtian ice age.
And a bit closer to home, he can tell you the fascinating tale of the geology underneath Riverdale and how our drinking water got into the aquifer that we pump it out of. And how the pesticides you use and oil you spill might get into the aquifer. He and his colleagues have produced a fascinating 3D map on the topic that you often see in Whitehorse classrooms.
It is also interesting for young people to see how geoscience is about more than just mineral extraction. There is a vast range of interesting work going on about environmentally sensitive reclamation, climate change and glacier research, and related fields around hydrology and engineering. This is a big attraction for today’s environmentally sensitive youth.
The Geoscience Trade Show got even more fascinating for my teenager when we ran into a guy with an atomic ray gun. Well, Erik Blake of Icefield Tools with a field-portable X-ray fluorescence and diffraction tool to be precise. You shoot it at stuff and it tells you what you’re seeing at the molecular level. It sure beats the econometric models Yukonomist can show his children on Take Your Kid to Work Day.
Geoscience also has its share of female role models. This year’s Prospector of the Year is Jean Pautler, whose acceptance speech at the Geoscience dinner told an exciting tale of travels to far-flung mountain tops, grizzly encounters and big mineral finds. And Eric Thiessen’s supervisor on their Yukon project is Professor Sarah Gleeson, an expert in hydrothermal ore deposits from Imperial College in London.
In addition to being intrinsically interesting, geoscience is also a growth industry with lots of career opportunities for young people. The rise of China and India is causing a long-run surge in demand for minerals. If the growth in copper demand we’ve seen in the last 30 years continues, for example, we will need to double copper production to around 30 million tonnes a year by 2035. That implies a lot of geologists to replace aging mines and find new ones. In addition, we will need geoscience experts for our geothermal energy projects as well as climate change and permafrost research.
Not every one wants to grow up to be a geoscientist. But next time your teenagers give you the thousand-yard stare about schools and careers, don’t just lecture them. Sign them up for Geology 12!
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.