ANCHORAGE — Speaking geologist is a foreign language to most, but understanding excitement is universal.
It is written all over Melanie Werdon’s face and loud and clear through her voice as she talks about the good old fashioned detective work of Alaska state geologists that led to significant findings of gold and strategic mineral anomalies during 2011 both in William Henry Bay north of Juneau and at the Moran deposit west of Fairbanks.
Werdon is the Mineral Resources Section Chief and economic geologist for the state Division of Geologic and Geophysical Surveys. The division is now engaged in a $3 million program to catalog strategic mineral deposits, which include both the valuable rare earth elements as well as others such as cobalt, platinum and yttrium.
Werdon used old mineral samples collected in the 1970s and 1980s by the U.S. Geologic Survey as a starting point for where to look in the Moran area, and on July 13 the division released its results from 2011 showing new gold bearing drainages and high rare earth element concentrations.
The 2012 program is focusing on prospects near Moran around the Ray Mountains north of Fairbanks. The land is currently held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but is under consideration for the state as it finalizes its final 4 million or so acres of land selections.
Gold-bearing results at William Henry Bay pushed the area into top consideration for state selection.
The Ray Mountains area is fairly low on the state priorities for selection at present, but if promising results are found this year it will likely move up the list based on its close proximity to the road system.
The $3 million in funding for strategic mineral surveys in 2012 was a part of the most recent capital budget approved during the last legislative session and a six-fold increase from the $498,000 allocated last year.
The “core shack” at the Hotspot rest stop along the Dalton Highway about 2 1/2 hours north of Fairbanks is filled with the latest technology from GPS mapping tools to something that can only be described as an X-ray gun. Airborne helicopter survey tools have also taken leaps in resolution, providing results that are comparable to the difference between a high-definition flat screen and an old black-and-white set.
But in the end it is still boots-on-the-ground geology work of walking miles per day picking up rock samples and panning sediment from streams to locate potential upland deposits.
The push to develop rare earth and strategic minerals is an urgent one as China has limited exports and solidified its control of some 95 percent of the global rare earth market.
Rare earths are vital to everything from consumer electronics to military weapons systems, and while the minerals are highly coveted there is a limited market that could be supplied by just a few producing mines.
Alaska is positioned well to meet those needs, and the strategic mineral survey now under way is giving mining companies a strong set of indicators on where to start digging.