Not too many years ago, mineral exploration and
minking were considered noble and beneficial pursuits, and the Vredefort
Dome in South Africa was widely believed to be the surface expression of
deep magmatic activity. Now, mining is widely condemned as an assault on
the environment, and compelling arguments suggest that the Vredefort Dome
is an impact structure.
This is extraordinary change over the brief span of a few decades. Are our social values and our science really evolving that fast? Can such rapid change be evolutionary, or was it revolutionary or revisionary? Whatever the path, these changes are impacting earth scientists just as earth scientists are contributing to these changes.
Given these new attitudes, Joe Briskey and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey present a case in this issue for conducting a global resource assessment of non-fuel mineral resources. Such an undertaking would have been technically impossible only a few decades ago. But with the development of mineral deposit models and techniques for characterizing geologic terranes, assessments are now not only possible — they are also noble and beneficial.
Whereas past exploration and mining have largely been driven by a single value, profit, the global assessment suggested here would also address environmental and social values. Ideally, global assessments will guide future exploration and mining to areas where environmental impact would be minimal, social value would be high and profit potential sufficient to attract investment.
The Vredefort Dome, described in this issue by Uwe Reimold, is a complex circular structure about 300 kilometers in diameter. What makes its origin particularly interesting is its location adjacent to the even more unusual Witwatersrand gold field, the largest gold deposit on Earth. Vredefort is a reminder that few geological features aren’t related in some way to mineral resources.
And some mineral resources have unique social impacts, as illustrated by James Shigley and Barak Green in the Comment on “conflict diamonds.”
A global assessment of mineral resources will inevitably contribute to and draw from our evolving understanding of the Vredefort Dome and thousands of other geologic features.
Historically, our initial encounters with virgin parts of Earth’s surface have generally been driven by the value we place on one mission: to explore and extract — whether it be first assaults on great mountains, the search for precious minerals, clear-cutting of old growth forests or archaeological digs. If we remain in an area, our values will ultimately multiply and conflict over time. Our needs from Earth change and we have to learn to live with our actions.
In exploration and mining, the initial pursuit of precious metals gives way to a pursuit for industrial metals such as iron, copper and molybdenum, and then to the need for infrastructure resources such as limestone, sand and gravel.
The consequences and rewards of these stages will benefit from global resource assessments just as they will from basic earth science research on geological features such as the Vredefort Dome. The evolution of our values will also lead to greater care for the environments of Earth.
Trust your compass,
Samuel S. Adams