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FY2010 Mineral Resources Program Accomplishments

Understanding the Natural Range of Element Concentrations in Soils of North America

In 2010, USGS scientists and partners completed a three-year effort to collect soil samples from more than 4,800 sites in the conterminous U.S.  Soil geochemical properties are critical to the health of the environment and to the health of virtually all organisms that live on or near the Earth’s surface, including humans.The results of this project will be of particular interest to the environmental regulatory community and public health specialists.  Major partners include Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture; the State Geological Surveys of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.  Sampling teams included students from 11 universities throughout the nation. 

Completing this part of sample collection is a major milestone in a long term effort, designed by the USGS in collaboration with the Servicio Geológico Mexicano (Mexican Geological Survey) and the Geological Survey of Canada, to provide for the first time, systematic, continental-scale data on background variations in soil geochemistry in North America.  A 2003 workshop organized at the onset of the project attracted 112 attendees representing 41 North American governmental agencies, academic institutions, environmental consultancies, and the medical community and provided recommendations for sampling and analytical protocols for the project.  A 3-year pilot phase to test and refine these recommended protocols was completed in 2007 and the results were published as 21 papers in a special issue (August 2009) of the international journal Applied Geochemistry

Small photo of soil collected in Tennessee and link to larger version of the photo
Soil profile collected in Morgan County, Tennessee, will provide data for the study of background variations in soil geochemistry in North America.

The samples are currently being analyzed for 44 major and trace elements, including most of the macronutrients and micronutrients, most potentially toxic elements, and organic carbon.  In addition, the major mineralogical components of the samples are being quantified. Splits of each sample are being archived for use by future investigators.  This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of reliable geologic, geochemical, geophysical, and mineral locality data for the United States.


Small photo of student taking soil sample and link to larger version of the photo

Small photo of student collecting soil sample and link to larger version of the photo
Students from North Carolina State University and University of Nebraska collect soil samples. The primary food source for the animals receives nutrients (and perhaps toxic elements) directly from the soil.

Small photo of the cover of the Applied Geochemistry issue of the Journal of the International Association of Geochemistry and link to larger version of the photoSpecial issue of Applied Geochemistry devoted to results from research conducted during the pilot phase of the Geochemical Landscapes Project.

Expanded Mineral Resources Data Catalog

Screen shot of the Mineral Resources On-Line Spatial Data Idaho geology page and link to mrdata.usgs.gov

The Mineral Resources Program’s (MRP) spatial data are now available using simplified, web-accessible map interfaces to locate and download specific databases, and the number of accessible databases has been increased by implementing a topically indexed catalog. The public Web site, available at http://mrdata.usgs.gov, now serves more than 40 national and global geoscience databases; the topical catalog directs interested users to more than 400 databases drawn from regional and local scientific studies. In addition to large national and global databases for which specialized data access interfaces are provided, the topical catalog points to regional and local databases developed as components of ongoing USGS research, monitoring, and assessment programs. Data sources in the catalog can be located by browsing scientific topics, geographic areas, or by scientific investigator.

The MRP supports an on-going effort to coordinate the development of national-scale geologic, geochemical, geophysical, and mineral resource databases and the migration of existing databases to standard models and formats that are available to both internal and external users. One of the most popular data sources provided by the web site is the State geologic map compilation, a set of internally consistent geologic map databases for U.S. states at the scale of approximately 1:500,000. The data are used by land-use planners, economic advisors, and a wide variety of researchers who require reliable, consistent, frequently updated databases. This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of reliable geologic, geochemical, geophysical, and mineral locality data for the United States.


Geologic Studies on Federal Lands in Alaska

Photo of  the cover of SIR 2007-5039 and link to the online document

The Mineral Resources Program has delivered products to a variety of Alaska Federal land managers who are addressing issues ranging from identification of background levels of elements with environmental consequences to assessment of undiscovered mineral deposits that may be of interest for development. Alaska includes 37 percent of all Federally owned lands nationwide. Federal lands constitute 64 percent of the landmass of the State and are under the oversight of a variety of Federal agencies including the Department of the Interior—National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service—as well as the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense. Geoscience data required to make informed management decisions are often sparse, of limited size and scope, out-of-date, or not relevant to specific land management issues.

Some of the highlights of the geoscience information collected and compiled on lands from the North Slope to the southern end of Alaska include

  • a quantitative assessment of the mineral resources of the National Petroleum Reserve (http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1760/c);
  • a study of the Bristol Bay watershed, which includes the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, portions of the Becharof and Maritime National Wildlife Refuges, Katmai and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and a number of lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2007/5039/); and
  • geochemical data in a southern arc which includes Wrangell-St. Elias, Lake Clark and Denali National Parks and Preserves, Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge as well as lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (reports available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1147/ and http://pubs.usgs.gov/ds/532/).
This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of up-to-date quantitative assessments of potential for undiscovered mineral deposits.


Formation of Gold Deposits by Active Geothermal Systems in the Great Basin, Nevada and California

Recently completed research supported by MRP concludes that active geothermal systems like those in the Great Basin of Nevada and northeastern California are unlikely to form economic epithermal gold deposits. Active geothermal systems are the result of both focused igneous heat sources (magmatic) and regionally dispersed heat flow unrelated to igneous activity (amagmatic). Young (‹4 million years old), shallowly formed (epithermal) gold deposits occur near several of the amagmatic systems. The origin of these young gold deposits prompted an investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine if the modern amagmatic geothermal fluids have an important role in the formation of some epithermal gold deposits.

USGS scientist measures temperature of boiling Growler Hot Spring
USGS scientist measures temperature of boiling Growler Hot Spring in northeastern California. Growler Hot Spring is precipitating silica sinter that contains arsenic sulfide minerals.

Noble gas and fluid chemistry of active amagmatic and magmatic geothermal systems were used to determine the link to gold mineralization. Noble gas compositions from both magmatic and amagmatic systems are mixtures of atmospherically derived components and gases from two sources within the Earth. Helium isotopic data verified that geothermal systems classified as magmatic contain a contribution from igneous sources deep in the earth (mantle-derived). In contrast, amagmatic systems contain significant amounts of crustally derived helium, which confirms the lack of magmatic contributions. Gold contents of all active geothermal fluids are low, although gold contents are greater in samples containing mantle helium. Noble and bulk gas compositions of fluid inclusions from several epithermal gold deposits near active geothermal systems are compositionally distinct from the modern geothermal fluids and further suggest deep igneous contributions to gold mineralization. Detailed chemical analysis of the modern geothermal fluids indicate that they did not form the ore minerals found in the nearby gold deposits.

This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of up-to-date quantitative assessments of potential for undiscovered mineral deposits.


Supporting Economic Development and Stabilization in the Natural Resource Sectors of Iraq

Scientists supported by the Mineral Resources Program (MRP) conducted a series of activities designed to support economic development and stabilization in the natural resource sectors of Iraq for the Department of Defense (DoD) Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Two key components of the activities built on expertise and capabilities in the MRP that are unique in the Federal Government:

  • Updating geoscientific data (geology, mineral deposit, geophysics, remote sensing, and geochemical) and preparation of maps and reports, in collaboration with Iraqi colleagues. These products, scheduled to be released in FY11, will provide the foundation for decision-making for those interested in investing in Iraq’s minerals sector. They will also provide critical input for the assessment of Iraq’s undiscovered mineral resources.
  • Advising on the upgrade and rehabilitation of chemical and geologic laboratories of the Geological Survey of Iraq (GEOSURV) to bring the analytical capabilities and capacities to levels comparable with other national geological surveys. A first step in modernizing the laboratories was the establishment of a laboratory information management system to link information and sample data from three main laboratory sections to ensure legacy data are not lost.

The expertise sought by DoD for the Iraq work resides in the USGS MRP because of capabilities that were developed and refined for the assessment of mineral resources on Federal lands in the latter part of the 20th century. This expertise was sought by USAID in 2005-2007 to conduct a USGS mineral resource assessment of Afghanistan and is continuing today, with support from DoD, to follow-up on identified prospective areas to assist in the rebuilding of Afghanistan's minerals industry.

USGS scientists in Northern Iraq
USGS MRP scientists and Iraqi colleagues together in the field in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

The Global Flow of Aluminum 2006 to 2025

In 2010, MRP-funded materials flow specialists met a request from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for analysis of global flows of materials related to the production and use of aluminum. The study highlights the differences in the lifecycle of aluminum between high-income countries, where it is used to produce goods in the transportation industry, and low- to middle-income countries, where aluminum is used mainly in the production of electrical systems and in the construction industry. These differences in end uses have important implications for the recovery of post-consumer scrap because the in-service life of electrical systems and construction uses is much longer than that of many transportation uses.

Results of the study were presented at the annual Global Forum on Environment in Mechelen, Belgium, a venue that brings together international experts to share experiences and explore common policy issues focusing principally on the environmental dimension of sustainable development and its linkages with economic and social policies. The report is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1256/. This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of long-term data sets describing mineral production and consumption.


Estimated Minimum Discharge Rates of the Deepwater Horizon Spill

The Mass Balance Team of the Deepwater Horizon Flow Rate Technical Group used data from the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) AVIRIS (Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer) sensor to determine a minimum discharge rate of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Using technology developed for use in mineral resource assessments and AVIRIS data collected over the Gulf of Mexico on May 17, 2010, USGS scientists participating on the Mass Balance Team were able map both the aerial extent and thickness of oil using changes in reflectance that are visible in the near infrared waveband. The Mass Balance Team approach combined remote-sensing-based estimates of oil volumes at the sea surface with estimates provided to the group by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), NASA, and U.S. Coast Guard on volume of oil skimmed, volume of oil burned, and percentage of oil evaporated or dissolved in seawater. The results of this work were released in Open-File Report 2010–1132 available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1132/pdf/OF10-1132.pdf. The expertise to conduct this work is available because of resources that support the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of up-to-date quantitative assessments of potential for undiscovered mineral deposits.

AVIRIS flight lines for May 17, 2010, over the Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico, oil spill.
AVIRIS flight lines for May 17, 2010, over the Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico, oil spill. The background image is from MODIS Terra acquired the same. At upper left is a portion of the "bird's foot" region of the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana. North is up, and the width of the AVIRIS flight lines is about 5.5 km.

Health and safety issues related to the presence of Chinese wallboard material in U.S. homes

 USGS scientist prepares sample of Chinese wallboard for analysis photograph and link to little larger photograph
USGS scientist prepares sample of Chinese wallboard for analysis.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) requested assistance of the staff of MRP-funded analytical laboratories in Denver to help understand problems associated with wallboard imported from China during the housing boom of 2002-2006. Samples of Chinese and domestic wallboard, natural gypsum material, and flue gas derived gypsum were sent to the USGS for chemical analysis and using the full array of laboratory resources, USGS researchers were able to provide the CPSC with a comprehensive evaluation of chemical composition and mineralogy of their samples. Preliminary results indicate that there are subtle but distinctive chemical characteristics associated with problem wallboard materials. This information was instrumental in helping the CPSC develop a chemical fingerprint that allows CPSC investigators to identify problem wallboard that is estimated to be in 36,000 homes in Florida and possibly 100,000 homes nationwide.

Homeowners began to experience problems with air quality because of a “rotten egg” smell that was believed to be related to the outgassing of hydrogen sulfide from the imported wallboard material. The phenomenon was most noticeable along the Gulf Coast and in select mid Atlantic States where high humidity exacerbated the problem. In addition to adverse health effects, electrical components in homes were adversely impacted due to the corrosion effects associated with a black film on exposed copper surfaces. USGS investigations are ongoing to determine potential chemical/mineralogical or biological sources of the hydrogen sulfide generation that will be useful in development of remediation solutions. The expertise to conduct this work is available because of resources that support the continuing goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of scientific facilities and services required to achieve MRP goals.


Investigation of Standard Mine Superfund Site

Scientists supported by the Mineral Resources Program completed an interdisciplinary investigation of the geochemistry and hydrogeology of the Standard Mine Superfund Site in Gunnison County, Colorado. The site is a source of mine drainage and associated heavy metal contamination of surface and ground waters controlled by Tertiary polymetallic veins that host sulfide-bearing precious- and base metal mineralization. Results of the studies, available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2007/5265/; http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1008/; http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1284/; http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1292/, will assist the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its effort to remediate mine-related contamination.

Photograph of exposed footwall surface of fault vein within the Standard mine, Gunnison County, Colorado, and link to larger photograph.
Photograph of exposed footwall surface of fault vein within the Standard mine, Gunnison County, Colorado.

A new phase of work, focusing on the characterization of large seasonal variations in water chemistry, has been initiated. This latest study utilizes automated sampling technology recently developed by a USGS scientist to collect water chemistry data at high frequency. Characterizing and managing large seasonal water quality variations have posed a major challenge in efforts to remediate abandoned mine sites in mountainous areas, and the new automated samplers could prove highly beneficial in such efforts. The new samplers also have been deployed to support recent fire science studies. The expertise to conduct this work is available because of resources that support the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of up-to-date geoenvironmental assessments of priority Federal lands.


Assistance to U.S. Trade Representative

At the request of the U.S. Trade Representative, USGS mineral specialists provided technical reviews of materials prepared as part of a challenge of China's restraints on the exports of nine industrial materials. In addition, the USGS assisted in the translation and interpretation of technical terms within Chinese Government documents announcing mineral products subject to export restrictions. China is a significant source for more than 25 mineral commodities imported to the United States, including rare earth elements. As China's consumption of minerals has increased in recent years, the Government of China has imposed export restrictions to ensure that its domestic industries have adequate supplies of minerals. Export restrictions are subject to regulation under the World Trade Organization (WTO). This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of long-term data sets describing mineral production and consumption.

Understanding the Effects of Historic Mining on Fisheries in Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho

Photo of restored stamp mill and link to larger photo.
Restored stamp mill at Custer, Idaho. Mills like this were used to crush ore in the 1800s and early 1900s during the hard-rock lode gold mining days in the Yankee Fork district. The cams on the rotating horizontal shaft raised and dropped the vertical hammers onto the ore, crushing it to make gold recovery easier.

Research recently completed by MRP-funded scientists identified historic use of mercury in mining as a primary source of mercury in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, Custer County, Idaho. The study also shows that naturally occurring mercury in the local volcanic rocks, source of gold and silver veins and modern-day hot springs, is a secondary source of mercury. The Yankee Fork was once one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the Nation. In recent years, however, it has experienced a significant drop in productivity, prompting USDA Forest Service Region 4 to request a study of the impact of the extensive gold and silver mining that occurred from the 1880s through the 1990s.

The new study focused on mercury and selenium as the primary elements of concern for the Yankee Fork fisheries. The high selenium levels were traced to the Tertiary volcanic rocks underlying the valley and to hard rock mine tailings that contain gold- and silver-selenide minerals. The complete study is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2009/5115/. This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of up-to-date geoenvironmental assessments of priority Federal lands.


Strategic Minerals

In 2010, Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) personnel requested help from USGS mineral specialists to evaluate supply issues for mineral commodities, including beryllium, cobalt, chromium, ferroalloys, lithium, niobium, rare earths, and rhenium that are unique to specific countries, including Afghanistan, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Congo (Kinshasa), Finland, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and Zambia. The DLA, especially DLA Strategic Materials (formerly Defense National Stockpile Center), is one of a number of Federal agencies from the United States and other countries that routinely seek information from USGS scientists on numerous issues involving mineral commodities.

Also in FY2010, USGS hosted a meeting with representatives of the DLA, the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals Corporation, and USGS mineral specialists to address the need for national defense stockpiles for critical minerals (particularly chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, rare-earth elements, and tungsten). Discussions included the supply of and demand for critical minerals, price trends and forecasts for critical minerals, current developments in China and India, and DLA's strategy of critical minerals stockpiling. This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of long-term data sets describing mineral production and consumption.

USGS Minerals Information Downloads

Customer use of the MRP’s online sources (http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/) for information on the global supply of and demand for minerals and materials continues to increase. The Web site, which contains publications on more than 100 minerals and materials essential to the U.S. economy as well as the mineral industries of 180 countries, averaged 550,000 publication downloads each month in 2010. According to the National Research Council of the National Academies, Committee on Critical Mineral Impacts on the U.S. Economy: "The USGS Minerals Information Team [recently renamed National Minerals Information Center] is the most comprehensive, responsible, and responsive source of information on nonfuel minerals both domestically and internationally." This work supports MRP’s goal of ensuring availability of long-term data sets describing mineral production and consumption.

Graph of National Minerals Information Center Publication Downloads

Quantitative mineral resource assessments

In 2010, USGS scientists published the first comprehensive overview of the methodology used to conduct mineral resource assessments. Quantitative mineral resource assessment—an integrated approach provides background on the rationale, tools, and outcomes of 40 years of research on quantitative assessment of undiscovered mineral resources.

Policy makers and land managers make decisions every day about management of public lands that might contain undiscovered mineral resources. Quantitative mineral resource assessments can provide necessary information about likelihood of mineral resources and possible consequences of development to the environment and to job creation.

During the last 40 years, USGS scientists have worked to develop and refine quantitative mineral resource assessments to provide a normative framework for making decisions concerning mineral resources under conditions of uncertainty. The integrated approach to assessments underpins MRP’s goal of ensuring availability of up-to-date quantitative information about undiscovered mineral deposits.

[The complete reference for this recent publication: Singer, D.A., and Menzie, W.D., 2010, Quantitative mineral resource assessments—An integrated approach: Oxford University Press, 232 p.]

Minerals Essential to Emerging Energy Technologies

MRP-funded mineral commodity specialists were in the thick of 2010’s increased interest in rare earth elements, lithium, and other materials required for emerging technologies. In March, the USGS briefed the Department of the Energy Assistant Secretary of Policy and International Affairs on rare earths, lithium, and other minerals related to clean energy alternatives, in advance of an interagency meeting at the Office of Science and Technology Policy focused on rare earth minerals. In April, USGS participated in a workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sponsored by MIT’s Energy Initiative, the American Physical Society, and the Materials Research Society, which addressed whether energy critical mineral supplies are, in fact, of concern, and, if so, what steps should be taken to address those concerns. Throughout the year, USGS provided data and information necessary to underpin both Department of Energy and Department of Defense studies on supply chains for rare earths and related commodities.

In the last few years, interest in and funding of research into new energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and hybrid and all-electric vehicles, has expanded with increased awareness of U.S. dependence on foreign oil. These new energy technologies require a dramatic increase in use of scarce elements and the supply of mineral resources for alternative energy technologies may be insufficient. This work supports the goal of the Mineral Resources Program to ensure availability of long-term data sets describing mineral production and consumption.

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