Environmental Initiatives And An All-important Minerals Census

January 05, 2021

Much of the local, regional, and federal government focus on mining-related geospatial data analysis remains focused on environmental remediation and land reclamation initiatives, but there’s been a relatively recent push into more proactive missions. That’s particularly true for projects that have implications for national security, such as the search for minerals and metals vital to the development and manufacturing of cutting-edge products and infrastructure.

The US Geological Survey, for instance, is in the final stages of a multi-year project to map the location of deposits of 35 crucial minerals US industry will need in coming years to manufacture everything from military aircraft to electronic vehicle batteries. The final data release, covering the Northeast US, will, as with the rest of the country, delineate everything from open pit mines, to locations of potentially significant  deposits. The project’s goal, according to USGS leadership, “is to develop a national-scale, geospatial database that is the authoritative source of the most important mines, mineral deposits, and mineral districts of the United States.”

The resulting work is expected to provide “the richest picture we’ve ever had within a database of a mining site,” says a USGS geologist who has been working on the project. The data will include the nature of each deposit, the locations within each mining site for those deposits, the style of mineralization, even the age of the host rock, and presence of other minerals.

That’s squarely within the core of the agency’s mission: “(compiling) information on the location of mineral commodity extraction and processing facilities and (analyzing) their distribution worldwide to further understand the spatial characteristics of mineral commodity supply chains.” The sector encompasses both minerals and metal ore mining as well as oil and gas drilling and extraction.

One example of the targets envisioned by project planners is really a prototypical use case for mining sector geospatial data analysis. USGS analysts are looking for phosphate deposits around the country as a pointer to potential sources of rare earth materials – essential components for everything from smart phones to fighter jets.

While phosphate is a sought-after commodity for use in fertilizer and even food products and cosmetics, it also functions as a catalyst for rare earth deposits. The acidification of rock by phosphates releases rare earth materials which can then be extracted for processing. The presence of certain rock formations, the acidification, even the impact of rain on the process all leave “signatures” that can be detected through image and sensor data.

Tellingly, the existing rare earths database has been downloaded the most in China – which has enjoyed an effective global monopoly on rare earths mining and processing since the last remaining US domestic commercial operations closed over the past decade or so.

Reversing that dominance by expanding the field of potential mining sites is certainly one of the goals of the USGS initiative. “This is more about greenfield opportunities,” one USGS geologist working on the program notes, even if that means new opportunities for different types of extraction at existing or even inactive mines. The program is applying geological surveys and other GIS data “to develop resource assessments and in particular the criteria on which we can base those assessments.” Some of the work can appear somewhat esoteric in nature such as analyzing topographical features, including fluctuations in elevation (dip and plunge) and geological formations. As a related research paper notes, “the data can be used to understand tectonic and geologic framework, the types and influence of basement rock fabrics on subsequent geologic events, and interpret elements of processes associated with the evolution of upper crust, controls on mineralization, and other Earth resources, such as groundwater.”

In other words, where to dig.

The next data release is expected by late Spring 2021 and will focus more on where mining companies have already been extracting minerals for some time: open pit mines in the Northeast, primarily Pennsylvania and New England. This final piece to the puzzle took longer to complete, a USGS geologist explains, because “polygons take more time (to annotate) than points (on a map).”

The exhaustive database is really a compendium of the types of geospatial mapping for resource extraction – an estimated 52 different types of mine features covering everything from open pit to deep level mining. “This is partly a history of US mining and exploration,” the geologist says, and partly a guide for future exploration. The sheer volume of data also highlights one of the challenges for the sector – the often-painstaking process of sorting through millions of data points, correcting errors in labeling and organizing all of that data so it can be used to meaningful ends.

The challenge increased with a benchmark requirement to include only “significant” deposits thought to be capable of supporting commercial extraction. That qualitative filter is the type of requirement that virtually mandates the use of expert human data analysts rather than automated programs. 

To a degree, the USGS initiative targets a vacuum the developed with the elimination in 1995 of the US federal government’s Bureau of Mines – once a prime user of GIS and other geospatial data. But the focus on crucial minerals also reflects emerging geopolitical realities, as evidenced by a December 2017 directive to develop a national critical minerals strategy.

While much of the current work has relied on existing databases that can be mined and annotated for the specific goals of the initiative, the agency is also beginning to invest more in raw satellite imagery that can be acquired for the same type of interpretive analysis being used to identify potential deposits of rare earth materials. Carbonates, for example, (used in drug, paper and glass manufacturing among others) leave spectral signatures that can be captured by satellite sensors. For that reason, the USGS expects to be a more aggressive consumer of raw satellite imagery over the next 3-5 years, at least. 

The USGS initiative is one piece of what will eventually become a trilateral mission in concert with Canada and Australia (two of the world’s key suppliers of minerals and metal ore) to develop and secure strategic reserves.  “Everyone is paying attention to this,” says one USGS official familiar with the initial planning. “This has the potential to release infinite creativity (through data analysis) that can enable next-gen research. In effect they’re building a foundational database. We’re excited to see where this leads.”