Wednesday 26th October 2016

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Rediscovering the planet

Laurentian University and its partners hope to re-write the geoscientific Book of Genesis

by Greg Klein

Laurentian University and its partners hope to re-write the geoscientific Book of Genesis

Metal Earth puts some of the world’s best-exposed, best-known
rocks under additional scrutiny to unlock evolutionary secrets.


Looked at this way, the future of mineral exploration lies in the past—billions of years in the past. But with state-of-the-art tools, techniques and expertise, Precambrian mysteries can be solved, leading to another generation of discoveries. Researchers with Laurentian University’s Metal Earth project intend to do just that, confidently stating they will transform our understanding of how mineral deposits originated during the planet’s evolution.

What accounts for such boldness? “We are trying new techniques, doing research on a scale that has not been done before and I’m confident that we’re going to make discoveries,” Harold Gibson tells As director of the Mineral Exploration Research Centre at Laurentian’s Harquail School of Earth Sciences and head of the Metal Earth project, he can barely contain his enthusiasm.

Laurentian University and its partners hope to re-write the geoscientific Book of Genesis

An extensive, innovative, seven-year study makes
its headquarters at Sudbury’s Laurentian University.
(Photo: Laurentian University)

“It’s a fully integrated study of our Earth,” he continues. “We’re looking at producing MRI-like images through transects of known endowed areas and structures and compare them with structures that appear to be similar but not endowed. It’ll be backed up by a lot of geology, geochemistry, mantle xenolith geochemistry, geophysics. We’re going to apply the same scrutiny to the less endowed areas to determine the underlying processes and help guide industry to select areas. We’re going to peel back time, peel back the Earth’s crust, essentially. This has never been done before.”

Gibson’s hardly alone in his confidence. Barely a week into the project’s existence, Metal Earth has attracted cash and in-kind backing totalling over $104 million. That includes a very prestigious award of $49.27 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

With money sufficient for a seven-year run, Metal Earth will draw researchers from Laurentian and other schools, including over 35 post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, technicians and support staff, over 80 grad students, 100 undergrads and numerous subcontractors.

Industry partners so far include the looming Sudbury presence of Vale NYSE:VALE, TMAC Resources TSX:TMR, nearing production at Hope Bay in Nunavut, and Ring of Fire explorer Noront Resources TSXV:NOT. Mira Geoscience brings its world-class earth modelling expertise while the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation provides additional computational facilities. Several universities and geological surveys have also joined in partnership.

Gibson expects ground-breaking results, in more ways than one.

Metal Earth will surpass Lithoprobe as Canada’s most extensive earth science project, he says. Some experts consider the 1980s-to-’90s endeavour to be the world’s best project of its kind. “Metal Earth is building on that with much more detail, much better equipment. We have more tools now,” he points out.

“Some ore deposits were integrated into Lithoprobe, but not a lot.” Even so the project “revolutionized ideas of tectonics, the evolution of our Shield, as well as ore deposits. This is much more focused on ore deposits and large-scale systems, so I know we’re going to have new results that will be extremely interesting. If we’re only 20% successful we’ll still change a lot of ideas.”

We’re going to peel back time, peel back the Earth’s crust, essentially. This has never been done before.—Harold Gibson,
Metal Earth project lead

Probably starting in October, field work will begin with the Abitibi Greenstone Belt. That puts a number of familiar areas under additional scrutiny. Then boots hit the ground on a less prolific belt, northwestern Ontario’s Wabigoon. Hope Bay, the Sudbury area and Manitoba will also come under investigation.

“We focused on Canada because we have the best-exposed and best-known Shield in the world—and tons of expertise. We can do this research best here but we see the results applicable globally and to younger terrains.”

Some data provided by companies will be kept confidential, but the results “will all be open source,” Gibson says. “All the data that we collect, which will be enormous, will be open to the public.”

That’ll primarily be “spatial data, on maps, plotted in 3D, in formats need by industry, government and other researchers.” Some of it will even be 4D, with the fourth dimension being time.

“We want to understand how time fits into this equation. We want to look back at the geometry, the morphology, the tectonics of the Precambrian,” he explains. “We’re going to do that through geochronology and isotope geochemistry. We’ll be looking at zircons collected by researchers and at government surveys throughout the Superior and Slave provinces, analyze them and use them as surrogates for looking at the nature of the crust at that time…. We can start reconstructing our paleo shields and look into how and when deposits fit into that.”

The results will offer a multitude of uses for exploration companies, Gibson says. He anticipates they’ll begin by poring over “an incredible amount of new data. Then we’ll be interpreting that data, creating images, integrating it all and making that available. We’ll be generating new algorithms, new ways of treating the data to see patterns that haven’t been seen before.” Info will be accessible online through Laurentian and through government partners.

While his enthusiasm’s obvious, Gibson’s well aware of the enormous challenge ahead of his team.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us, a tremendous opportunity for geoscience in Canada, but with that comes a tremendous responsibility to do it right,” he emphasizes. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”

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