Cutting-Edge Tools to Explore Alaska’s Mineral Potential

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Managing 72 million acres of Federal lands in Alaska is not easy, especially when the land’s many uses need to be balanced. There are several competing interests, including the development of mineral resources that are critical to the American economy.

Cutting-Edge Tools to Explore Alaska’s Mineral Potential

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Alaska oversees Federal lands and resolves competing interests to ensure the health, diversity, and productivity of this acreage for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. To help with this gargantuan task, the BLM creates and follows Resource Management Plans. John Hoppe, a geologist with the BLM, helps with these plans by examining mining claims and mineral resource assessments.

“Coming originally from mineral exploration, my initial ambition with the BLM was to make mineral resource information available to the public,” explains Hoppe. “U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] mineral assessments are now the primary source of this resource information, and it’s very important that the public has access to it.”

“[The] USGS’s data and reports are the gold standard in mineral and geologic information. Their science brings accuracy, integrity, and reliability to my work and helps ensure that our Resource Management Plans have the best and most current minerals data.”

Image shows a USGS scientist leaning against a rock outcropping with trees in the background
A geologist stands next to cataclastic shear zones in the Melozitna granite in the Ruby batholith. This granite contains abundant monazite and high levels of thorium and rare earth elements. The shear zones accelerate erosion of the granite into streams, where the monazite that contains the rare earth elements can be concentrated. This area is part of the Bureau of Land Management's Central Yukon Planning Area, which USGS did a mineral assessment of in 2015.(Credit: Sue Karl, USGS. Public domain.)
Assessing the Last Frontier

“People have been prospecting in Alaska, in a significant way, for about 120 years, but it is still very much a frontier,” said Hoppe. “So much land has never been touched by a human hand and so much remains to be explored.”

The USGS assesses dozens of mineral commodities in Alaska; a recent assessment was the 2015 estimate of the potential for placer gold, rare-earth elements, platinum-group metals, copper, uranium, and several other commodities in the BLM’s Central Yukon Planning Area.

Mineral resource studies in Alaska benefit from USGS innovations. Alaska remains a rugged and daunting place for conducting science. The climate and remoteness of many locations lead to difficulties in studying resource potentials.

USGS scientists help mitigate those challenges by employing cutting-edge research tools like hyperspectral aerial surveys and high-definition satellite imagery, and by updating old standbys like the Alaska Geologic Map, which is now available in a digital format for the first time.

“Things have come a long way since the 1990s in the aspect of minerals information,” said Hoppe. “For example, the population of the Alaska Resource Data Files and the Alaska Geochemical Database, combined with the evolution of software and computers to process all this information, has prepared Alaska for a new era of understanding resource potential.”

Image shows a woman sitting on a rock in a stream
A USGS geologist pans for monazite and rare earth minerals in Wolf Creek, which cuts through the Melozitna granite. This area is part of the Bureau of Land Management's Central Yukon Planning Area, which USGS did a mineral assessment of in 2015.(Credit: Sue Karl, USGS. Public domain.)
Alaska’s Future

Even as the BLM incorporates current USGS mineral resource information and assessments into their Resource Management Plans, Hoppe looks forward to the future of mineral science in Alaska.

“One of my favorite parts of mineral investigations is tying together information from over 100 years of geologic research and mining history and considering where those clues could point toward new mineral resources,” said Hoppe. “I’m glad that the USGS is a partner in BLM’s efforts to see where those clues will take us.”

Generalized USGS Geologic Map of the Western Part of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands
USGS map of western Alaska shows the generalized geology of the state, with each color representing a different type or age of rock. Source: https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sim3340
Generalized USGS Geologic Map of Eastern Alaska
USGS map of eastern Alaska shows the generalized geology of the state, with each color representing a different type or age of rock. Source: https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sim3340
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