Plans for a new map of Africa could benefit geologists


    Source Stuart Rankin
Source Stuart Rankin

HOST INTRO: The World Bank wants to map Africa’s mineral wealth with aircraft and satellite. Pierre Bienaimé reports that the data the project gathers could be a boon for African countries, mining companies… and geologists.

It’s going to cost a billion dollars to make this map. The World Bank will put up a fifth of that, and hopes that developed countries and mining companies will contribute the rest.

RAMSEY: You need many, many thousands of images, and you’d have to mosaic them all together, stitch ‘em together, make kind of this one large image.

The project will use spectral imaging to measure the wavelengths a surface emits. Ramsey says that can help scientists identify what’s lying underneath the surface.

RAMSEY: And each mineral, major kind of rock-forming minerals that we geologists like to look at, have kind of a diagnostic fingerprint, so we’re able to kind of match up what we see with the imaging data either from the ground, or airborne, or space with data we might have in the lab.

The project will start by combining existing data. Then it will identify where the blind spots are, marking them for more detailed exploration. Putting it all together won’t come cheap.

RAMSEY: A lot of computing power, a lot of time to put all that together, but it’s certainly doable. Parts of the world have already been mapped in similar ways. Australia has made its own maps available through Google Earth’s interface. Just check boxes for things like iron, coal, even uranium, and you’ll see where you can find them.

Colin Reeves is a geologist who started his career in Africa. He says this kind of knowledge of the continent is long overdue.

REEVES: Go back 100, 150 years, we didn’t have a topographic map of Africa, and people think that now we do we know all there is to know. But the maps of African subsurface are still to be drawn.

On the other hand, Reeves says Botswana is a model of how natural resources can lift a country up from poverty. The country’s diamond industry accounts for more than a third of its GDP.

But the project isn’t only about commerce. It might also lead to purely scientific gains. Take plate tectonics. Half a billion years ago, the planet’s landmass was all smooched together in just one super-continent. Then it broke into two. Scientists have named one of them Gondwana.

REEVES: South America, Africa, India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica—used to one time to be all part and parcel of the same huge continent, or supercontinent, Gondwana.

Minerals and metals were already in place before Gondwana split up, so Reeves says looking at where they show uptoday is kind of like fitting together pieces in a puzzle.

REEVES: The geology should be continuous from one continent to the other, regardless of the fact that there’s now several thousand kilometers of ocean separating them.

To make all of those connections, scientists will need access to the data. TheWorld Bank plans to make it publicly available, but that won’t be easy. Michael Foose is a researcher at the US Geological Survey who leads projects in Africa and the Middle East. He says African countries might be reluctant to share their data.

FOOSE: “Countries hold on to their data very closely, in many cases, and certainly in Africa that is the norm. And that’s understandable, it is theirdata, they feel “why should I be giving away my data to other people?”

Foose thinks the World Bank will have a lot of wooing to do. It will have to convince African countries that they’ll be all the better off for cooperating.

FOOSE: “I think that they will have to make, or help people understand that it is in their best interest to make their data as available as possible. And in some cases they’ll succeed, and in some cases they won’t.”

The fund is set to get underway in July.

Pierre Bienaimé, Columbia Radio News.

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