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USGS searches for critical minerals in the state

Spirit Lake Survey Area: Public Domain
Spirit Lake Survey Area: Public Domain

The United States Geological Survey, or USGS, in cooperation with the FAA is conducting a new geological survey across the central Great Plains.

The goal of the project is to collect geological data on areas across the Great Plains that are thought to have undiscovered deposits of critical minerals.

These minerals are needed for national defense and domestic use. Currently, the United States relies heavily on outside sources to get them.

A new low-levelairborne project will fly over parts of northwest Iowa, northeast Nebraska, southwest Minnesota, and southeast South Dakota.

At times the surveying plane will be as low as 300 feet above the surface in non-populated areas and 1,000 feet above the surface in populated areas, due to FAA guidelines.

This multi-organization effort aims to collect new and more accurate geological information. Benjamin Drenth is a research geophysicist with USGS. He said the previous survey information was not done well.

“Most places like this, believe it or not, have been poorly mapped. That is why there is this emphasis on it now. This is something that President Trump’s administration has really pushed as well as President Biden’s administration,” said Drenth.

Drenth said the project is happening now thanks to an allotment of funding and can now be done “right.”

The plane is outfitted with three measurement tools to conduct the survey.

A strong GPS system allows for precise navigation and geographic context. A magnetometer which measures the intensity of the earth’s magnetic field can help geologist determine the different rock types they are flying over. A spectrometer is the final surveying tool that allows geologist to record the natural radiation levels coming from the ground surface.

Drenth said the tools do not cause any type of harm to the public, but can measure 3,200 feet below the surface.

“There really isn’t an issue, really, again because they are passive measurements that are measuring things that are there anyway. Like, the earth’s magnetic field is there whether we fly around and measure it or not," said Drenth. "Same with the radio activity being emitted from the soil in the ground surface. It's there whether were there to measure it or not.”

The survey will be turned into data that will be presented to the federal government and the public.

Drenth estimates it can take up to a year for the data to become available.

Evan Walton is an SDPB reporter based in Sioux Falls. Evan holds a Master’s in English Literature from Southern New Hampshire University and was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 2015, where he served for five years as an infantryman.