Secretly Stashed Afghanistan Gold Maps Emerge

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USGS scientists realized that it was not enough to produce maps and reports that would gather dust if  no one was trained to use them.

Maps showing Afghanistan’s largest known gold deposit and other gold, copper, mercury and iron sites in the region and near Herat have been resurrected and remade by the U.S. Geological Survey. The new USGS maps were modified and interpreted from a collection of unpublished Soviet maps dating back to 1967. The old maps were tattered and torn, yet legible thanks to decades of safeguarding by Afghans during times of turmoil and conflict.

Image: Afghanistan's Colorful Mountain Ranges
Colorful mountains of Sar-e-Pul hint of copper (green) and iron (red).

The modern maps were part of a larger decade-long Afghan-USGS project to gather and update the country’s mineral and energy resources information and to build the country’s capacity to conduct modern earth science research. In just ten years, a cadre of Afghan scientists were trained, modern earth science equipment and networks were installed, and more than 40 terabytes of earth science data were generated.

The Cartographic Challenges

Producing modern maps was a challenge given the condition of the original material. The Soviet maps had been prepared before plate tectonics and its fundamental role was understood. The maps had been hidden for decades and were folded, faded, and falling apart. As the USGS carefully prepared the maps for scanning, it became clear that the valiant efforts by the Afghans to preserve them had paid off. But other issues surfaced.

“What kind of coordinate system is this?” USGS cartographer Will Stettner wondered. Stettner was brought into the project to lead production for the new maps. When asked “Where’s the north arrow?” Stettner simply smiled and shook his head.

The Soviet maps apparently contained some features that didn’t exist. Other features, such as rivers, did not fit with the known topography. The location, rock types and the structural geology all had to be interpreted into modern-day geology.

Image: Hindu Kush Peak in Afghanistan
Hindu Kush peak rises to about 17,000 feet.

Location, Location, Location

While the Afghanistan deposits look good geologically, their remoteness and security issues present challenges to modern mineral resource exploration and development, according to USGS geologist Steve Peters, who led the project.

“The area around the largest deposit has not been systematically explored for gold since the Soviet work in the1960s, so analysis using modern tools is needed to better understand the full potential of the area’s resources,” said Peters.

Much of Afghanistan is rugged territory dominated by snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges, which rise well above ten thousand feet.

Alexander the Great visited the rugged northeast, conquering lands and, as the maps show, naming settlements after himself. He was intrigued by the gems that had been mined in the area and in nearby provinces for thousands of years before he arrived.

Scientist Robert Tucker agrees with the challenges of working in the rugged parts of the country. “Lack of re-fueling sites and security issues prohibit bringing field crews to certain areas by helicopter,” explained Tucker, who completed field exploration in about a dozen mineral areas throughout Afghanistan for the USGS. “Often, we completed field work as our helicopter hovered, but some places were too remote from fueling sites and a helicopter could not make the return trip,” said Tucker.

Image: Lapis Lazuli
Rich blue Afghan lapis still intrigues visitors.

One area that Tucker worked is near Herat in west-central Afghanistan. The resulting map shows that the area contains several gold and copper deposits that are also prolific throughout Afghanistan. This area was worked and explored by the Soviets and the new map reproduces and interprets their results.

Afghan USGS Partnership

  • For more than 75 years, the USGS has worked in countries around the world. The efforts focus on institution building, but they also engender interaction with foreign scientific colleagues, providing USGS scientists with knowledge and experience of a value that is incalculable.

USGS work in Afghanistan began in the 1950s and lasted until the country dissolved into war in the late 1970s. During the next quarter century, Afghanistan’s natural resource institutions were decimated and Afghan scientists were unable to continue their work or stay current. But they were able to preserve maps, reports, tables, and notebooks, in some cases safeguarding them in their homes or burying them underground.

In 2004, the Afghan government requested USGS assistance to help assess natural resources and to rebuild the country’s earth science organizations.

Image: Redbeds Near Herat
Aerial view near Herat. Dark red iron stains hint that other minerals might be found.

USGS scientists realized that it was not enough to produce maps and reports that would gather dust if  no one was trained to use them. Afghan geologists, cartographers, and technicians were trained systematically in Afghanistan, the U.S., and other countries. Modern equipment was delivered to the Afghanistan Geological Survey. A seismograph network was installed to measure earthquakes, and more than 40 terabytes of digital earth science data were generated during the ten-year project.

USGS scientists worked closely with Afghan colleagues to gather existing information about mineral deposits and to acquire new data for identifying undiscovered resources throughout the country. USGS collaborated in a wide range of field work including drilling and coring, satellite remote sensing, airborne geophysics and seismic surveys, establishing stream gage networks, and completing extensive studies in ground and surface water quality and quantity.

The USGS conducted field work in 2006 and again extensively in 2009-to-2012, at ten areas of interest throughout Afghanistan for mineral resource development. This effort resulted in the 2007 Preliminary Assessment of Non-Fuel Mineral Resources of Afghanistan and a fact sheet, which revealed that Afghanistan has abundant known and undiscovered mineral resources.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Geological Survey, the USGS and the U.S. Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations entered into an agreement to assess Afghanistan’s mineral resources so that they could be economically extracted to expand Afghanistan’s economy. The partnership identified 24 important areas of interest in the 2011 report, Summaries of Important Areas for Mineral Investment and Production Opportunities of Nonfuel Minerals in Afghanistan, and a summary fact sheet. High-resolution versions of the figures for the hyperspectral mapping analysis can be downloaded here.

Learn more:

USGS projects in Afghanistan

USGS Afghanistan Image Gallery

The USGS delivers unbiased science and information to understand mineral resource potential, production, consumption, and how minerals interact with the environment.

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