Unleashing the Mining Potential of the Arctic
Significant numbers of high grade undeveloped mineral resources are known to be present in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions. The regions are already key areas of focus for exploration and development. But improving sea access, technological advances and increasingly complex and progressively lower grade ore bodies in non-Arctic regions are making Arctic mining more attractive. Consequently, the level of mining-industry activity in the region is expected to grow. Over the next 10 years, investment in the Arctic—led primarily by the oil and gas and mining industries—could exceed US$100 billion1.
The investments and changes needed to develop the Arctic’s resources will not happen overnight. But as U.S. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska has noted: "It's not a question of if the Arctic will be developed; it's a question of how we manage that development."2To participate fully in that development, mining companies will need to overcome a range of challenges, from interacting with multiple levels of government to establish a workable regulatory framework, to complying with the complexities of gaining a satisfactory social license to operate. But for those that address those challenges, the potential opportunity is huge—particularly in light of likely continued increases in commodity prices.
The Future Arctic Mine
The question is, “how will successful Arctic mining operations work in the coming years?” It seems clear that they will rely on the application and modification of current methods and technologies developed over many decades of mining in such conditions, enhanced with the introduction of breakthrough innovations. Looking at today’s trends and leading-edge developments, it’s possible to paint a picture of the “Arctic mine of the future,” and how it might meet the challenges of working in the region.
Working without permafrost
In much of the region, thawing of permafrost is becoming more significant due to global warming, which presents a growing hazard. The practice of securing foundations using deep piles or thermosyphons (giant specialized coolers that help to keep the ground frozen and stable) will need to be extended farther north than previously necessary. Similarly, more underground operations will need to use refrigeration units to cool ventilated air in summer months and to freeze ground water to stabilize ground conditions. And as part of underground water management, more shafts will need to be designed to reduce melting in transition sections where permafrost meets rock layers.
In coal mines, the use of polymerics as a coal-dust retardant will be critical, due to the ineffectiveness of water for that purpose, and because the low moisture content of Arctic coal buried in permafrost makes coal dust explosions a greater risk. Ventilation design will need to account for elevated levels of methane gas, because permafrost can act as an impermeable cap that can trap unusually high amounts of the gas in the ore that is released during mining.
Minimizing environmental impact
In addition to operating in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, miners will need to actively manage their environmental footprint in the region. Drones, RFID technologies and sensors will play an important role in monitoring operations and assets such as pipelines in real-time to identify potential environmental issues. Solutions such as closed-system exploration drilling are likely to be the norm as companies work to reduce the amount of drill cuttings they leave behind. This kind of approach can be seen today in Anglo American’s exploration activities in Finland, where one project was able to carry away 50 tons of drill cuttings that would have otherwise been left in areas that were not likely to involve future mining operations, leaving the sites pristine.
The remoteness of Arctic operations means that facilities will typically be constructed using modular construction methods. The entire processing facility for the Cominco Polaris mine in Canada was built on a barge, towed to the site, moored into position, then opened like a Russian matryoshka nesting doll. While this was an extreme case, modularization—which takes advantage of low-cost construction facilities far from site—-will be routinely applied to control costs and reduce the number of personnel required at the site for construction.
Even with the abundance of oil, gas and coal in the region, finding energy for operations will be difficult. Some mines can be expected to re-use some of the waste heat from operations for other uses, such as heating inhabited facilities. Diesel fuel will still be a key part of the energy mix, but liquid natural gas (LNG) could also be a key source of energy if LNG plants are established along the northern coastlines of Arctic nations. And we are likely to see the Arctic winds harnessed via multi-megawatt capacity wind towers more than 100 meters tall —a trend foreshadowed by the Diavik diamond mine in Canada, one of the first to introduce this technology. This will help reduce diesel fuel consumption, although diesel-based generation capacity will always be needed to fill in during periods of low wind velocity.
With the advance of Airship technology, runway-less cargo delivery, may play a vital role in Arctic Mining. Unlike the airships of the past, the new breed of airships uses helium rather than hydrogen that eliminates the fire hazard. There are currently plans to construct behemoth airships able to carry loads upwards of several hundred tonnes. It is likely to still be a longtime before the technological and financial challenges are overcome and before Airships rule the skies of the Arctic.
Major OEMs are offering progressively more complex tools for maintaining mining equipment. It is conceivable that robots will be able to perform routine maintenance activities such as oil changes, to lower the need for mechanics on site. As the dexterity and artificial intelligence of these robots increase, the scope of the tasks they can tackle will also increase.
New approaches to logistics
Once Arctic facilities are in place, keeping them connected to the rest of the world will take special effort. This will often require the building of access routes across ecologically sensitive areas, which will entail careful planning to minimize the environmental footprint. The construction of fleets of special ice-class vessels will also be needed; these will need to be capable of carrying supplies and fuel to mines and then transporting mine products to market on return voyages. Specialized containers, designed for Arctic use and meeting standards for use in very cold temperatures, will be needed for carrying supplies. Year-round air links will have to be established to support emergency services—a development that will bring a new standard of living to Arctic region inhabitants who currently have limited access to medical facilities. And 3D printers are likely to play a role at mines and logistical hubs, allowing those operations to produce non-tolerance and non-wear parts on-site, rather than have them held locally in a warehouse.
Keeping in touch
Communication with remote sites will be facilitated by Arctic-specific satellites launched by nations bordering the region and organized to enable 24/7 coverage. Arctic broadband services—originally developed for military use3—will support commercial activities and help maintain real-time visibility of operations.
This improved communications infrastructure will enable the remote control of Arctic mining operations, with equipment being operated from control centers located thousands of kilometers to the south in populated areas. Drills, shovels, haul trucks, scoop trams, mills, concentrators—all of these can be controlled from the comfort of a major city once reliable communications are established. This will greatly reduce the need for on-site staff. But there will always need to be a significant maintenance staff on site to service increasingly sophisticated mining equipment.
A Region of Challenge and Opportunity
With its profound challenges, the Arctic will always remain something of a frontier operating environment. But by building on the experience of decades of successful operations, adopting emerging innovations and planning carefully, mining companies can thrive in that environment. And as they proliferate, Arctic mines will become a significant part of the global mining industry’s footprint.
1Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North, Lloyds and Chatham House Report, 2012
2If the Arctic booms, will Alaska’s workforce be ready ? Alaska Dispatch, Alex DeMarban, Aug 2013