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Brian Atkinson - Guide in the wilderness

by Dan Zlotnikov on March 8, 2013 profiles

Brian Atkinson is the Ontario Geological Survey regional resident geologist for the Timmins region. The Timmins and the Sault Ste. Marie districts span some 250,000 square kilometres. Within the region are 14 active mines with two more under construction, eight advanced exploration and 28 earlier-stage exploration projects, covering a wide variety of minerals and conditions.


“In the summer, I try to spend four days a week out in the field. Left to my own devices, I'd spend all of my time in the field.”
-Brian Atkinson

Ontario is, to put it mildly, very big. Canada’s fourth-largest, at a million square kilometres the province would still make the world’s thirtieth-largest country, bigger than Germany and France combined. This vast expanse has also long been known for its mineral riches, producing everything from amethysts to zinc.

Monitoring this enormous territory are the regional resident geologists – six in all – and their thirty-two staff.

“There are between one and three geologists working under each regional resident geologist. We're talking about a pretty limited workforce. We have huge districts, so it keeps us gainfully busy, staying on top of things,” says Brian Atkinson, the Ontario Geological Survey regional resident geologist for the Timmins region.

“Huge” is right: Atkinson’s domain – the Timmins and the Sault Ste. Marie districts – spans some 250,000 square kilometres. Within the region are 14 active mines with two more under construction, eight advanced exploration and 28 earlier-stage exploration projects, covering a wide variety of minerals and conditions.

Atkinson explains that the breadth of experience was one of the aspects that attracted him to the posting. He says that after university he had spent five years working in commercial exploration in British Columbia and the Yukon – a very different experience from his current role.

“When I worked for industry, it was always on contract, so you're always thinking about your next job. And when metal prices fall, it can be difficult to get work.”

The ebb of the commodity cycle prompted Atkinson to accept a contract as a Quaternary geologist with the Ontario government, working in Southern Ontario.  Soon after he won the competition for a resource geologist position in Ontario’s Red Lake district, a post he held for four years before the resident geologist position for the district became available. Atkinson remained at Red Lake for 14 years, but says that he has always had his sights on Timmins, where he moved in 1997.

“Timmins appealed to me from all the options across Canada, it's such a renowned place for great ore deposits.  It's both the size, and the variation in the types of deposits. It has world-class Archean gold deposits and one of the world's largest volcanogenic massive sulphide deposits. Timmins is a very large district, so it's got diamonds now. Copper-nickel deposits. There's a wide variety of deposits here and great geology.”

Being a regional resident geologist is, in many ways, a case of balancing opposing demands. The offices’ mission is to aid and guide mining companies, whether already working in the province or just considering Ontario for exploration possibilities. To accomplish this, each resident geologist must be an expert on his or her region, intimately familiar with the geological formations present in the region, the types of deposits, and the results of previous exploration activity.

At the same time each resident geologist must also be a generalist, able to offer advice to a client company no matter that client’s choice of mineral.

“As resident geologists, we're pretty general. We each might have an area that we like more than others, so we might lean toward that, but we have to be very general because we've got such a wide variety of clients who use our services,” says Atkinson.

This can mean switching from consulting with a junior diamond explorer one day to discussing high-tonnage copper mining operations the next.

[Click to enlarge]

Can you spot the geologist? The rugged terrain and remote nature of the field work have compelled a major emphasis on safety over the years, says Atkinson.

To stay current on their region, resident geologists must spend a lot of time in the field. Fortunately for Atkinson, that’s his favourite aspect of the job.

“In the summer, I try to spend four days a week out in the field,” he says. “Left to my own devices, I'd spend all of my time in the field.”

Of course all that time in the field cuts into the other side of the equation: The resident geologist is expected to stay current on new development in geoscience, which means reading publications. Lots and lots of them – one never knows what will be applicable to the next client’s request.

Nature helps with the balance. “In the winter you can't do much except visit mines and drill sites; looking at geology on the ground is pretty well out because of the snow, so I only spend one day or less a week out in the field,” says Atkinson.

There is also a trick to staying ahead of the avalanche of new publications.

“We work closely with universities. The professors there are brilliant people and they're the ones on top of all the research. I interact with them, and that's my shortcut for staying on top of all the reading,” he explains.

The benefits of the interaction go both ways: Atkinson points to student field trips as one of the highlights of his job.

“The professors will bring their class and introduce them to various deposit types, or aspects of the geology, structure, or alterations. They keep you on the ball because they always ask good questions, too,” he says.

Conceptualizing things and coming up with new ideas that can be tested and explored by industry or prospectors is a main component of Atkinson’s role. “We're always looking for new, economic mineral deposits and thinking of new ways they might occur that hadn't been thought of before.”

The resident geologists’ ability to serve as a conduit between industry and academia can yield impressive results.

“If there's a new discovery that's completely bizarre, then one has to ponder, ‘oh, what's this?’ Ultimately that's one of the main components of our role: Conceptualizing things, coming up with new ideas that can be tested and explored by industry or prospectors. We're always looking for new, economic mineral deposits and thinking of new ways they might occur that hadn't been thought of before.”

This is precisely what happened with the recent discovery of CôtéGold, now being developed by IAMGOLD: Atkinson’s office was instrumental in identifying the discovery as a porphyry-type deposit – with significant implications for the region’s future development.

“Once you get something like that, you start looking at where else you might find those things. We look at the big picture of things and try to direct exploration in areas that might be most favourable for new discoveries.”

As the regional geologists’ arsenal of models grows, so does the promise of Ontario’s mineral wealth. Companies looking for new exploration targets are certain to find the province’s regional resident geologist program a valuable resource.


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