First comprehensive atlas maps riches of Arctic
By Tom Spears, Ottawa CitizenMay 7, 2009
OTTAWA — Canada has published the first comprehensive atlas of Arctic geology — everything from continental plates to rock types that signal where to hunt for gold, diamonds, gas and oil.
The atlas contains $1-billion worth of data from polar countries, and carries enormous implications for contentious Arctic sovereignty claims — based partly on formations under the ocean — and for mining and earthquake forecasting.
It shows physical features such as kimberlite pipes — which can contain diamonds — underwater volcanoes and fault lines.
The main overview map is available electronically and in a low-resolution poster from Natural Resources Canada, showing the whole world north of the Arctic Circle. A press run of high-resolution maps is set for next February.
Already, mining companies are eager for a look, said Marc St-Onge, a Geological Survey of Canada senior scientist and one of two Canadian leaders of the atlas project.
Thursday he told a group of MPs and public servants how everything north of 60 degrees latitude is now put together in a "seamless" map, which also breaks down into 1,222 units for greater detail.
Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden all contributed data. The $1-billion figure represents years of field work by all those countries combined: icebreakers dredging the bottom of the polar sea, helicopter flights, seismic profiles of the depths, and uncounted geologists trekking around on foot.
"Previously you would have had to get a Canadian map, a Norwegian map, a Russian map and so on," he said.
Not only did these use different colouring systems, but they would not all contain the same information.
"For instance, a classic Russian (geology) map shows age and nothing else. It will tell you something is Ordovician, but it won't say if it's limestone or granite."
Ordovician means a period that ended 443 million years ago.
But detail available today is stunning. It shows not only the surface, but deeper layers as well — three-dimensional sections that the scientists call "data cubes."
Gaps remain, particularly under the permanent ice near the pole and in Greenland.
"There are areas of the polar ocean that are just being surveyed for the first time," St-Onge said in an interview.
He told the MPs it shows detail "from the surface down, inside-out and backwards . . . That's the name of the game: Know what you have, document it well.
"This is now Canada's front yard," he added.
Several MPs pressed St-Onge for details on whether the maps strengthen Canada's Arctic territory claims. He told them, diplomatically, to go ask a lawyer, and added that a few more years of data-gathering under the ocean would add helpful details.
The map doesn't reveal previously unknown oil and gas deposits. At least, not directly.
What it does show is how the ages and types of rock across the Arctic compare with ages and types of rock where oil, gas and metal ore are already known. For instance, an island in Canada's Arctic has formations that appear identical to rocks in Norway where there are deposits of lead and zinc.
Another example: Baffin Bay contains "an untested area with high potential for natural gas in northeastern Canada."
For mining companies, he noted, the map comes at the perfect time: Economic activity has slowed, and the industry has time to digest what the atlas shows, without any pressure to rush out and drill right away.
The maps even allow geologists to analyze how ridges have grown, and moved, under the sea as the tectonic plate under North America has slowly moved away from the one supporting northern Europe.