Searching for ‘White Gold’ in southern Greenland

Museum mineralogist Dr. Paula Piilonen was thrilled this July to be part of the educational team for the annual Students on Ice Arctic expedition. Enjoy her reflections as she continues the journey to Greenland where she collected minerals from an abandoned mining site.

As usual, I wake up before my alarm and the ritual “Good morning Students On Ice!!” wake-up call by Geoff Green over the ship’s PA system. Getting out of bed, I open our window hatch and look outside–—craggy peaks with blue-white glaciers are perched above the brilliant blue waters under a bright blue sky. Each morning aboard the Sea Adventurer, the vistas that greet us are stunning. How are we going to go back home where the morning vista consists of the street or the side of your neighbour’s house? Staring out at the amazing beauty of Greenland causes me to giggle a bit—sometimes it doesn’t feel real, like the whole trip has been a dream. I am developing a definite obsession with icebergs and glaciers.

Paula Piilonen and students examine rocks along the shore of the mine site.

Paula Piilonen leads students on a mineral collection trip along the shore of the Ivigtut Mine site. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

But today isn’t a dream! Today is special and I bound out of bed to gather all the tools I will need for a mineral collecting trip. Today we get the opportunity to visit the Ivigtut cryolite mine in Arsuk Fjord. Cryolite is an extremely rare sodium-aluminum-fluoride mineral (Na3AlF6), which is found at fewer than 50 localities worldwide, and generally as crystals less than 2 cm in size.

Paula Piilonen and student examine rocks along the shore of the mine site.

Paula Piilonen and Ottawa student Jack Patterson examine rocks containing cryolite along the shore of the Ivigtut Mine site. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the Ivigtut mine, cryolite occurs in huge masses—to this day, chunks of cryolite ore three metres in width are still available in the dumps. In the 100-year lifespan of the mine (1854-1962), more than 3.5 million tonnes of cryolite ore was extracted from the open pit.

Archive photo from 1920 with cryolite ore being loaded onto ship.

Cryolite ore from the Ivigtut Mine being loaded onto a ship to be sent to Denmark for processing, 1920. Insert: Cryolite (white) with siderite (brown) from the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine. © Secher & Johnsen 2008

The rare mineral was once used as a source for sodium bicarbonate, as a flux in the mirror and glass industry and in the extraction of aluminum from bauxite ore.
The mine at Ivigtut has been inoperative since the mid-1980s, but there is still plenty of collectable material lying along the shore and in the dumps further into town.

View of old mine building and water-filled pit.

The open pit of the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine has abandoned and been filled with water since the late 1980s, but the old mine buildings remain. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The museum has equipped each of the students and staff on the trip with a mineral ID kit. Each kit includes a hand lens, streak plate, nail and enough sample bags to bring many mineral samples back to the ship in order to examine them in the lab.

Paula Piilonen talks to student as they sit near microscope.

Paula Piilonen talks to student about minerals on board the ship. Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

As we disembark from the zodiacs, I find myself standing on the “waste” rock from the mine and automatically drop into the mineral collector’s pose—bent over at the hip, scanning the ground for interesting specimens.

Paula Piilonen uses power drill to cut into large piece of cryolite.

Paula Piilonen, helped by Kelly Walsh, drills into a piece of cryolite ore at the Ivigtut Cryolite Mine.
Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Students and staff follow suit, and soon I am surrounded by hands thrusting specimens forward with the follow-up question, “What is this?”. Nowadays, it’s not easy to collect minerals at a famous historical location and come away with spectacular specimens—most of the time, these places have been picked over by collectors and little of value or interest is left. At the Ivigtut cryolite mine, spectacular specimens are the norm!

It’s a unique opportunity for these students and my hope is that they realize that, putting the science aside, minerals have an inherent aesthetic and artistic quality that reflects Nature’s need to have every atom in order. Every sample I pick up is of better quality than those currently in the national collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Paula Piilonen sits on a large piece of ore containing cryolite and siderite crystals.

Paula Piilonen sits on a large piece of ore containing cryolite (white) and exceptional siderite (brown) crystals. Ivigtut Cryolite Mine, Arsuk Fjord, Greenland
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Cryolite is everywhere we look, along with a suite of sulphide minerals (galena, pyrite and chalcopyrite to name a few), fluorite, quartz and siderite (FeCO3). The siderite is simply stunning—a lustrous garnet-red colour with crystals that exceed 12 cm in length. Collecting at the site is like being a kid in a candy store and the excitement is infectious. It’s a very good thing that we have a larger plane to fly back to Ottawa – all of us will be coming home with extra “baggage”!

People in zodiacs in Arsuk Fjord.

Whale-watching in Arsuk Fjord after a morning of mineral collecting. Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a few hours of collecting at the old mine site, we once again load the zodiacs and head out into Arsuk Fjord to follow a humpback whale which has been observed surfacing near the ship. Whale-watching in a zodiac on a warm, sunny Greenlandic day after a morning of amazing mineral collecting? What more could anyone ask for? It’s another amazing day with Students on Ice with more to come before we head back home.

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

About Paula Piilonen

A mineralogist with the Research Division at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Rocks and minerals and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Searching for ‘White Gold’ in southern Greenland

  1. Pingback: Celebrating Nature | Eco Books 4 Kids

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