Maps to the rescue

The next health report on the Yukon's placer industry is coming out soon. And it doesn't look good. Placer production isn't riding the global rise in gold prices like it should, said Carolyn Relf, director of the Yukon Geological Survey.

The next health report on the Yukon’s placer industry is coming out soon. And it doesn’t look good.

Placer production isn’t riding the global rise in gold prices like it should, said Carolyn Relf, director of the Yukon Geological Survey.

“Typically, when gold goes up, production goes up and when gold goes down, production goes down,” said Relf.

“The creeks that are currently being worked may be running out of gold, or maybe (the miners) haven’t found new benches where the gold is accumulating,” she said.

The geological survey releases a report on the placer business every three years and their next installment, which Relf said will be published shortly, will cover the recent global recession and the steady rise in the price of gold that accompanied it.

But it appears placer miners weren’t able to seize the opportunity and reverse the decades-long downward trend for placer production in Yukon.

So the geological survey is trying to kickstart more placer mining with the help of $320,000 from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, or Cannor.

“Historically, the survey has not produced much information that’s useful to the placer industry,” said Relf.

With work begun last year, the survey is trying to open up five new creeks to placer mining by studying water depth, she said.

The survey measured the creeks’ depth by studying their electrical conductivity.

The more conductive the creek, the deeper it is, said Relf.

Hopefully, placer miners will be lured by shallow creek beds, she said.

“We’re trying to see if it’s a useful tool.”

The Cannor money is one part of a massive four-year $3,504,000 investment by Cannor in Yukon geoscience.

It’s all going to the geological survey, which had to pump up its pro-industry credentials to get the cash, said Relf.

“We sold the project to Cannor on the merit of, ‘Sometimes new mapping generates new exploration and economic activity,’” she said.

The survey, which also does studies in the name of public science, has always been at the service of exploration firms.

But the Cannor investment signals a bigger shift toward supporting industry.

The survey is not a way for private business to get its geological mapping done on the public dime, said Relf.

“We aren’t doing work at the same scale as industry does,” she said.

The survey’s maps are very regional in scope, while mining companies stick to finer work.

“You can’t extrapolate from drill holes what you have in a region several hundred square kilometres wide,” she said.

Nor can a company decide where to drill on the basis of a regional map, she said.

The survey isn’t just becoming more proactive in industry growth with the Cannor money, which will add almost a fifth to the survey’s annual budget for the next four years.

It’s also expanding into providing geological data for government regulators, land-use planning and infrastructure construction.

“That’s pretty typical across the country,” she said.

“Geological surveys are evolving.”

The survey is getting $430,000 to study the soil’s surface in areas where new housing or highways might one day be built.

“If you’re building a new subdivision, then you need to understand what surficial materials are there, what the groundwater is, and whether it’s permafrost prone or not,” she said.

The geological survey runs a small shop within the Energy, Mines and Resources Department.

So it’s going to have to contract out some of the Cannor money to fulfil its mandate.

The survey got $1,400,000 for geophysical research, but it doesn’t have a geophysicist on staff, said Relf.

“We don’t do enough geophysical work to justify hiring a geophysicist on staff,” she said.

Some of the work will be reorganizing old geophysics data with new methods.

“It’s expensive to get data so, once you’ve got it, you might as well milk all that you can out of it,” she said.

Much of the work will be improving maps of magnetic signals under the ground.

Many of the old maps are imprecise because of the imaging technology used when they were made.

“A high magnetic signal in an image will swap the image so that all you really see is this big blob lighting it up like a light bulb,” she said.

“The magnetic signature of the surrounding rock might get diluted as a result.”

Computer programs are able to reduce that effect.

“The Shakwak Valley is a major tectonic fault and if you want to image it, you may want to push back the signal of other features that might dilute it,” she said.

The survey will be gathering new information on the impacts of gravity on rock density – another job for a geophysicist, she said.

The Cannor money is also going to digitizing piles of old data donated by defunct exploration companies

“We have a lot of maps in tubes that haven’t seen the light of day,” she said.

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