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Earth Explorer is an online source of news, expertise and applied knowledge for resource explorers and earth scientists. Sponsored by Geosoft.
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By Virginia Heffernan
As a well-established consulting geologist working in the middle of the Nevada goldfields, Buster Hunsaker has adopted software and GIS as a critical part of his exploration tool kit – both in the field and in the office.
Being faster and more efficient in using technology for geological insight and project management has given him an edge in what can be a competitive business, especially during cyclical downturns in the mining industry like the one we are experiencing today. More important, it's enabled him to produce better results for his customers.
"Our expertise in GIS has opened a lot of doors for us," says Hunsaker, who specializes in early stage gold exploration projects. "As a consultant, bringing both our experience and technology to bear on projects is a tremendous advantage. We see a real gap in the application of technology to exploration. There are not as many senior people applying it as there should be."
The Carlin gold belt in north-central Nevada is one of the richest in the world. Hunsaker estimates that about 8% of global gold production comes from deposits within a 100 km of his headquarters in Elko. Because the state has been so intensively mined and explored over the years, there is a rich store of available data, including a comprehensive subsurface database.
That's where the application of digital technology comes in handy. Without the tools to process and make sense of it, all that data would be mindboggling at best and virtually useless at worst.
Using ESRI's ArcView to visualize geographic data in combination with Geosoft's Target for ArcGIS to mange drill projects, Hunsaker is able to integrate volumes of old and new data, both public and private, to highlight areas with mineral potential, work within different scales, and generate 3-D renderings of the information.
"There are a lot of new geological concepts coming out in Nevada," he says. "We can take the new geologic maps and apply existing data to them and it gives us new ways to interpret the existing data."
Though Hunsaker has been using GIS for years, many mining companies are just beginning to see the value of integrating geological, geochemical and geophysical data from government geological surveys – which are increasingly publishing data in ESRI formats – with their own exploration data as part of their workflow.
The most obvious advantages are efficiencies in project and data management, time savings, increased productivity and better decision making.
The introduction of extensions for GIS systems such as Geosoft's Target for ArcGIS has made the suite of spatial analysis tools even more powerful by providing the ability to visualize subsurface geological data within a GIS environment.
"We wouldn't consider doing something without the third dimension, if we have drill data available," says Hunsaker, "and Target provides the ability to handle that third dimension quickly and easily. That's both the geophysics as well as the drillhole data."
"Having the 3D perspective also means we're quite comfortable bringing in a lot of data because we're confident we can handle it and it won't overwhelm us." says Hunsaker.
Hunsaker's adoption of GIS for mineral exploration began 12 years ago when he was looking for an efficient way to track federal mining claims. A colleague directed him to ArcView and there has been no looking back.
"ArcView's ability to handle large amounts of data led us to expand from land title data to all kinds of geologic data," he says.
As Hunsaker's experience with GIS grew, he was able to take the mostly raster data available in Nevada and convert it into GIS format. That gives him another edge over the competition. "From a business viewpoint it has become a good income stream for us."
Another unique aspect of Hunsaker's approach to exploration is his use of ESRI's ArcPad, a software program that allows data capture in the field on ultra-rugged field computers or hand-held devices. The software is commonly used in urban areas where there is easy access to cell phone networks, but is just beginning to penetrate the mineral exploration industry.
Using ArcPad has allowed Hunsaker to generate data in GIS format while he is in the field, resulting in an instant compatibility between field and office that would not be possible were he still using a notebook to scribble observations about outcrops and other geological information.
In the historic gold mining district of Wonder, Nevada, for instance, Hunsaker used ESRI's ArcMap to convert 34 years of data generated by his client and a century of archival data into a standard GIS coordinate system. He then took the subsurface data – including results from more than 100 boreholes – and applied Geosoft's Target for ArcGIS to generate cross sections.
He is adding even more value to the historic data by using ArcPad to complete additional surface mapping in the field, creating another layer of digital information that can be used to explore the district.
"The ArcMap model and the Geosoft extension allowed me to generate sections that have the latest mapping from ArcPad windowed in the plan portion, straight out of the field," he says.
As important as it is today, adapting technology to exploration will be even more essential in the future.
"We are generating massive amounts of data, all of it digital and most in GIS format. You need technology to effectively explore all this new data and fit it in to your projects," says Hunsaker. "The new technology that's coming on stream, like Geosoft DAP and Dapple is phenomenal. You can take an AirCard even in an area where you have limited coverage, and you can take a cell connection with your tablet computer and access these data sets."
"Don't even think about the old tools," he advises other explorationists. "Think about the new tools that are coming on board. You need to become really efficient with data."