What makes a geologist? Thoughts on declining discovery rates, and other strange animals – a practising Ni-PGEsulphide geologist’s (heretical) viewpoint

February 11, 2023

by Richard A. Hornsey, Consulting Geologist, Ni-PGE Specialist at Richard Hornsey Consulting (Pty) Ltd

Richard in the field

I was asked to write a contribution to Coring Magazine by Brett Davis, whom I met on a few occasions during the period at which I was employed by MMG Ltd as Global Ni Project Generation Team Leader.

Brett was undertaking consulting work on an ‘as-needs’ basis and came to Brazil to undertake a structural review of our Limoeiro Ni-sulphide project. In addition to being a very competent, personable expert in his field, Brett is one of the few consultants that adopt a ‘bigger picture’ approach and listens to the team without ramming his ideas and concepts down their throats. In addition to the above quality, we have similar musical tastes, therefore without question, Brett is a super fellow. This impression has not been blunted by asking me to put pen to paper and write something for this magazine, which, I assume, is read by a very diverse group of people of various technical disciples. I am a self-employed consulting geologist with 32 years of experience in most aspects and sectors of the business, therefore will put forward, on a pretty forthright basis, a few ideas, concepts, and opinions on the exploration industry. I trust no one will be offended, but I am a child of the 1960s, so I am of the generation, who at an early age, learned to climb trees, light fires, cycle to school at the age of seven, and play in the street after dark, and take advice with a pinch of salt, as well as treat ladies, other folk, my betters, and elders with due respect!


Myself, I am a Yorkshire lad, born and bred. I was fortunate to grow up during a period of intense social change, to see the first lunar landing at the age of nine months, and receive the type of outdoors upbringing that is almost unheard of nowadays. At the age of seven or eight, I used to visit my grandmother, who sadly became terminally ill from when I was about nine or ten years old, in a small East Yorkshire village and, encouraged to look after myself, I would disappear after breakfast and reappear at sundown after a full day’s solo hunting for adventure, searching for fossils, Roman mosaic stones, and anything of interest. Without knowing it, this trained me in several aspects – I became physically fit, developing stamina that has lasted to this day, and a keen sense of observation, able to spot an old coin or fossil right under other people’s noses – critical skills for an economic geologist.

I was fortunate to attend good schools – and although not the most diligent of pupils, managed to achieve entry to the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to read Geology. This was not my first choice; since the age of 16, I had worked in my school holidays for a stone mason and spent a gap year working in Huddersfield and Sheffield. I could have quite happily done my apprenticeship and continued. I was, however, politely mentored by one of my older colleagues that since I was educated, and had gained an entry, I would be taking the place of someone less fortunate should I not use it, sage advice for which I am now very grateful. Throughout my University years, I worked for the largest cable contracting company in the UK, installing cables at various power stations, industrial plants, banks, and other interesting places. This job does not require intelligence, but does require stamina, the ability to work very long hours, and teamwork. I was working with people of all backgrounds in a pretty tough environment, where if you did not perform, either the pay-packet was distributed amongst the rest of the team, or the van did not pick you up ever again. This also taught me some critical skills – how to get a job done, teamwork, the importance of respecting all your colleagues regardless of background, and being straight-talking, not soft-soaping bad news – a person needs to clearly know if there is an issue rather than talking in circles.

Richard in South Africa
The author describing features of the Bushveld UG1 chromitite layer at the Dwarsrivier National Geological Monument, South Africa

To South Africa!

I graduated in 1990, the only honor received was being awarded ‘Most Astute Observer’ during our final year’s field excursion. This was during an unprecedented period when there were no jobs in the oil or hard-rock sector, globally. Together with two other students, I had been recruited by JCI, a former South African powerhouse, to work at the new H J Joel Mine in the Free State sector of the Witwatersrand Goldfield. Two weeks before leaving, I was retrenched… Fortunately, I had my permanent residence permit and certificate of fitness to work on the mines, so was recruited by Anglovaal to work at the Sun Project, a deep Wits drilling program in the Free State, north of the Loraine Gold Mine. At that time, this was the largest and deepest drilling program that had ever been undertaken, we had over 40 rigs over an area of almost 1000 sqr. km (362 sqr. mi), to depths in excess of 4500 m (14 764 ft). My deepest intersection was at 4033 m (13 232 ft) at hole SLP2.

From the technical drilling perspective, there were some interesting aspects. The rigs used were predominantly Sullivan 50s, but we also, prior to my involvement, used an oil drill rig at the adjacent Oribi sector of the project. The drilling was conventional, so at depth, we got 6 m (20 ft) of core per 24 hours. The rigs were static for periods of up to five years, often with the same driller and team, all living on the job. Multiple short and long deflections were drilled, some had over 20 directional wedges to achieve offsets of 1-200 m (3.28-656 ft) from the mother holes. We also had a world-class standard procedure for reef intersection collection, whereby the core was handled by one person, including capture from the core barrel, logging, crushing and milling samples, and delivery to the lab. This was way ahead of any codes, National Instruments etc.

I also saw my first disruptive changes during this period. Each geologist was responsible for three rigs, and we used to happily log our 18 m (59 ft) per day, plot sections, etc. All was peachy until a Canadian company called Universal HS Drilling arrived with aluminum rods. In addition to throwing great parties, they also used wireline drilling to depths previously unachievable, suddenly, we were receiving 50–60 m (164-197 ft) of core per rig per shift! This period impressed the importance of production on the entire team, following standard procedures, naming conventions, and data import. Core logging is a fundamentally important geology skill that needs to be done rapidly, comprehensively, and to an appropriate level of technical detail. I lose patience with geologists who agonize over every entry, taking weeks to log a single hole, or worse, leave it to an unsupervised or mentored junior colleague to do the logging, then wonder why the product is not up to scratch. In the Klerksdorp exploration office, we had several geologists of all experience levels leading to a high-quality product. My team was mentored by Dries Ferreira, an experienced Chief Geologist, who played a huge role in my career development. We were fortunate to work alongside a very competent structural geologist, Steve Jolley, who was kicking his heels around a bit for work, so spent time on the project. He was able to identify structures, cleavage direction changes, and other interesting features that enabled understanding the complex structure of the project. Core logging is not merely about capturing intervals, there is a whole world of rock relationship information, very rarely recognized, understood, captured or utilized that can inform fundamentally critical exploration decisions. This includes the primary relationships between lithologies, relative timing, fractionated or non-fractionated stratigraphy in intrusions, mineralization relationships to the surrounding rocks, vein morphologies, compositions, ad infinitum.

To the Bushveld – drilling through the blast!

Following Anglovaal, I spent three years at Lonrho’s Western Platinum Mine (now Sibanye-Stillwater-owned). This was also a critical formative period, as at Lonrhro, unlike JCI (now Amplats) and Impala Platinum, we had very few geologists, and we were utilized on a mine-wide basis, not confined to a single reef on a single section or shaft. I was fortunate to have the entire mine to play with, particularly after my underground mentor David Mooney moved to Eastern Platinum Mine. For three years, I did not use a PC, I was underground just about every day, and together with my small team of geological observers, mapped over 15 km (9.3 mi) of raise and haulage development a month, plotting it onto paper G-Sheets. I also completed my Rock Mechanics Elementary ticket, as this allowed me to visit other mines, which was not possible for a geologist in those days. This period provided an intimate detailed knowledge of the entire Bushveld Complex, as when I left Lonhro, I had visited every Platinum Mine apart from Atok and Messina.

From the drilling aspect, the Bushveld Complex is a strange animal. While current practice is to drill on a relatively tight spacing, mainly to comply with the Mineral Resource Codes, it was a bit different when I was at Lonhro. Although the property was drilled at very wide spacing, during my period, we used to drill only sparingly. In the Bushveld Complex, particularly for the UG2, it is not critical to drill at short-range to establish the PGE grade, as it is remarkably consistent. We primarily drilled to resolve geological problems. On one memorable occasion, we drilled an underground hole to establish the elevation of the UG2, at approximately 150 m (492 ft) below the mined out Merensky Reef. The AX-size hole burnt in at about 140 m (459 ft), so after much deliberation, it was decided to set a wedge, the thinnest one I have ever seen! For some long-forgotten reason, we decided to set and drill the wedge through the blast, which was okay because the hole was in the intake airway of the mine. Not to be missed, I joined the driller Johann Meyer for the surreal experience, the Kempe rig spinning as fast as possible, whining like a banshee, and all around us the booms of the underlying UG2 stopes being blasted. Needless to say, the mission was successfully accomplished.

Throughout my subsequent career, I have endeavored to see as many projects as possible, not only in my core field of Ni and PGE, but also other sectors as this provides comparative insights or operational methods that may be transferable. I am very fortunate to have worked in regional new business teams, focused on both PGE and Ni-sulphide, as these are simply two endmembers of a geological continuum. It is an old saying that the best geologists have seen the most rocks – while this is true, just seeing the rocks is not sufficient, it is more critical to see them, understand what is being looked at, contextualize, relate to analogs elsewhere and identify similarities of process. I also think it is very important to ‘leave a bit behind’ in that I have always tried to engage with the teams, and discuss the project – our core review – ask for opinions, and discuss the features observed. I have always found this is appreciated and welcomed, and, particularly during my final years at MMG, when it was blatantly obvious that the company would be exiting the Ni sector, viewed it as a potential means of securing consulting work afterward. It pays to advertise, and no-one would subsequently employ a visitor who does not display any empathy or wisdom.

A rare skill

Observation and deduction are critical requirements for economic geology. Surprisingly, this appears to be a very rare skill indeed throughout the profession. During my early career, I was told by Jan Mostert, Chief Consulting Geologist at Anglovaal, that a competent geologist should be able to work out exactly what a company is working on within a couple of minutes, should they visit a competing exploration office. This is because often, plans are laid on tables, put up on office walls, and memos are left on desks – another critical skill is to be able to read upside down! We were therefore always encouraged to keep a tidy workspace, and never let anyone into our offices unnecessarily.

The same applies to ASX information releases. It is amazing how much critical technical detail is unwittingly released in public documents. This particularly applies to core or drill chip photographs. A case in point, in 2012 or thereabouts, Sirius, following the Nova discovery, released an image of polished drill chips. At that time, like all other Ni-focused geologists, we were keeping a pretty tight watching brief, and in the absence of information, the detailed setting of Nova within the Fraser Range was not known. The deposit was being described by Sirius as a hitherto unidentified style of mineralization. MMG had recently undertaken a review of the Ntaka project (Tanzania), with which I was familiar from Lonmin days, and although the intrusion was described as intensely deformed, it became apparent that this was not the case. The intrusion is predominantly post-major deformation, with primary mineralogy. The Nova drill chips had identical mineralogy to Ntaka, therefore it was indicated that this could be a similar setting, and the intrusion, therefore, had to be late orogenic, which ran counter to all other interpretations. I was even asked why I was the only geologist in Australia who believed this to be the case! Subsequent work by the CSIRO team and IGO has confirmed the late-orogenic setting, indicating the critical importance of such observations from very limited data.

Interestingly, I recently worked for a geologist who has developed the same skillset, but for another commodity. From outcrop photographs, he is often able to work out mineralogy, deduce mineral percentages, and then make an educated guess on recoverability. I clearly need to up my game a bit!!!

What makes a good Economic Geologist?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with a very diverse range of men and women of many different backgrounds, cultures, and creeds. The almost overwhelming common trait is that all of these people are predominantly open-minded, intellectually inquisitive, ‘can-do’ characters. In South Africa, in the early 1990s, I was among the first to work underground alongside female geologists, who were previously excluded from working there. I have worked together with, mentored, and watched the career development of numerous people who were previously denied the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. I have worked in South America and all over Africa with indigenous geologists who have all the skillsets necessary to be world-class and have personal work ethics, respect, and a willingness to learn that would put many in the developed world to shame.

So what qualities are required to become a leading geoscientist? In my opinion, there are several, all of which become important when the chips are down.

Firstly, physical fitness, stamina, and self-determination – and before I am accused of being sexist, in my experience, it is often the females of the team who have these qualities! These become essential on the long traverses in the tropical heat, when often that last outcrop is the important one. The best geologists do not give up and keep on going to see the most rocks!

Secondly, an ability to make observations, not only seeing what is there, but more importantly, what is not there, and identifying anomalies of potential significance. This ‘left-field’ deductive capability based upon an imperfect dataset sets a great field geologist apart from the average. It also is the single most important reason why the current trend towards using AI for exploration purposes will not replace a capable human for the foreseeable future. This is also what makes leaps of deductive faith based upon only partially fitting analogs, or unexplained observations from elsewhere that are stored in the subconscious mind. I have found over the years, that people who grow up in a rural environment have much greater observation skills than those from urban areas. Furthermore, African geologists generally have the best observation skills and memory of specific locations of any persons with whom I have worked.

Third, the ability to operate within a team, be flexible about leadership roles, but be respectful towards people when they have a point to make that could be worth listening to. Being sufficiently comfortable within a team to make a potentially game-changing comment or suggestion, and equally being able to provide an answer that is honest and not demeaning. If communication is stifled, nobody wins. It is quite amazing how rarely such team principles are applied, particularly within the larger corporations, which in my experience are characterized by a cut-throat competitive culture where sharing is tacitly discouraged.

Fourth, keeping your tools sharp! In my case, although I have undertaken many management roles over the years, I have always tried my utmost to be a geologist first, and everything else second. Managers are ten a penny, whereas competent geologists are a very scarce breed. This means taking an active role in project work, undertaking tasks that other members of the teams may not be capable of while providing mentorship to spread and grow skills. Learning new skills from team members, who often have experience that is new. All of this contributes to a technical growth culture.

Finally, a thirst for knowledge is absolutely critical. This means personal growth, undertaking higher degrees, particularly if they can fit into a work-related topic. Attending management training courses to develop project management skills and theory, field excursions, and focused conferences and seminars. Using the various digital platforms available to download and listen to technical presentations. Reading, and critically appraising academic papers, bearing in mind that not all that is written is cast in stone!

Current discovery rates

A common industry theme relates to the declining discovery rates over the last 30 or so years of exploration, despite significant exploration spending increases. These presentations, particularly those by Richard Schodde, provide excellent insight into the expenditures and locations of global exploration. From the grass-roots perspective, after spending 30 years in the sharp end of the business, I would propose that there are some issues that perhaps have not been raised.

Investment in skills development and mentoring: despite what some companies may claim, serious investment in developing the personnel and experiential skillsets required to advance what is a highly technical, research and development-based business have been fundamentally ignored for almost 30 years. This period of time is sufficient to realize that the predicted outcome of this is a global shortage of skilled geologists to replace those that have retired. At the time, the catchphrase was that it would be ‘possible to source world-class skills from the market’, therefore skill development was not viewed as a return on investment. The global retrenchment that accompanied the ‘just-in-time’ revolution arguably directly led to the junior explorer success during the 1990s to 2000s, as a pool of highly technically skilled professionals saw their various projects and regions canned. Many were successfully resurrected following independent capital raising. These human resources simply no longer exist, and the concurrent almost total lack of sustained exploration by major companies, which realistically are the only ones with the longevity and budgets to provide longer-term career pathing, has compromised the ability to replace them.

Major explorer inadequate budgets, short-termism, and over-reliance on junior explorers: currently, major exploration companies undertake less exploration in almost direct proportion to increasing expenditure. It is interesting to compare major explorers’ annual budgets to the funding provided by successful explorers, such as Ivanhoe. The Ivanplats project indicates sustained investment immediately adjacent to Amplats most successful mine has achieved a discovery that was not achieved by other companies with decades of exploration pedigree in the Bushveld Complex. Exploration and mineral discovery is one of the most technically challenging sectors of any business. It is comparable, if not more technically difficult to the pharmaceutical sector, yet the difference in R&D budgets is staggering. Most current exploration budgets barely cover overhead costs, leading to management criticism of the lack of discovery and subsequent team disbanding. Yet the teams are hamstrung from day one. This leads to a related issue, short-termism, and perceptions of failure. This afflicts most major and mid-tier companies with very few exceptions (IGO being a notable one). A company will decide to become an explorer or rebuild a capability. Invariably, promises are made, to huge fanfare and expectation, but it is not realized that successful exploration is a 10–20 year business investment. This is particularly true if, as is often the case, the company decides to ‘bust open new terrains’. It takes five years simply to recruit a team, enter a country, form partnerships, and acquire or generate the basic datasets. During this period, incremental knowledge is gained that needs to be understood, benchmarked, interpreted, and adequately warehoused. Generally, such knowledge only becomes useful once a technical breakthrough is achieved, or hard data is acquired that enables a more robust interpretation of, for example, a geophysical dataset. If there has not been continuity of personnel, or adequate document management, or all the documents have been shipped to Singapore (notably), this breakthrough may never be realized. Therefore, the whole exploration ship sinks, companies become disillusioned, and the exploration effort is disbanded. One simply has to review the recent history of most major explorers, as all are guilty of this recklessly stupid short-term destructive cyclicity. A further comparison may be drawn to the pharmaceuticals sector, which has not seen a similar strategy implemented as the relationship between R&D and revenue is more closely understood. During the recent COVID-19 period, had a similar industry-wide retrenchment of capabilities occurred, it would have taken years, rather than months, to re-engineer and develop the vaccines that broke the virus.

This destructive process also occurred at MMG, formed with a mandate to grow through acquisition and exploration, during the ten years following its formation in 2009. At one point MMG was the only large company actively exploring for Ni-sulphide, and was provided opportunities to purchase Eagle, Kabanga, Noront, and Tamarack, which, apart from Nova, were the best pre-development projects globally. Noront could have been purchased outright during 2016 for a little more than a single year’s exploration budget, approximately CAD 90 million. The recent Wyloo Minerals purchase valued the company at over CAD 620 million. Had the strategy been implemented, MMG would have currently held all the largest, highest-grade Ni-sulphide projects globally, and been at the forefront of the current green resource sector. Although hindsight is always 20/20, the greater importance of foresight, and staying power are more often totally lacking in corporate strategic thinking.

An often-mentioned solution is to ‘let the juniors make a discovery and then purchase’. However, this is in itself a flawed strategy for the reasons outlined hereafter, especially, as pointed out by Schodde and others, exploration becomes deeper and more conceptual in nature. The exploration cost and risk exclude almost all junior explorers from this sector of the business. Junior explorers are much more effective in less-developed countries that are relatively under-explored, and within which surface discoveries are more likely to be made. When examining the global exploration and discovery maps, it is clear that the Anglophone countries feature very prominently. This directly reflects the quantity of exploration that has taken place – easier funding based upon language and legal familiarity equals more exploration, which leads to more discoveries being made. This situation will change, as the cost and technical difficulty of doing business will force juniors to enter the frontier countries.

Development of economic geology-focused teams

A common failing of many exploration teams is over-reliance on academic, rather than economically-focused literature. This is partly a result of industry confidentiality, although that has significantly changed, and partly the demobilization of internal company centers of excellence that undertake more economically-focused research and orebody genetic modeling. This has led to an almost total reliance on academic literature.

Throughout my career, I have tried to work with, provide opportunities to, and learn from the subject experts in the various academic fields related to my area of expertise with mixed success. I have found that the main issues are that firstly, academic specialists are extremely focused to the extent where they often ignore or are not aware of associated specialties. A case in point relates to mafic and ultramafic intrusions, a field currently dominated by experts with a petrological or geochemical background. However, the emplacement of an igneous intrusion is a physical process that occurs at any location from mantle to crust and is subject to various geological controls that may be fundamental to ore genesis. These physical processes result in mappable features, both within the intrusions and the country rock, and therefore their recognition is of direct importance to an economic geologist. However, very few of the technical papers that are used by most exploration teams to define exploration strategy consider these processes, or processes invoked are totally contradictory to all physical observations such that they are unworkable. As pointed out by Brett in a previous edition, the ‘genetic diagrams’ presented in various technical papers show intrusions that do not exist in reality, and do not feature the real-life mappable features that may lead to discovery. Therefore, the current generation of explorers are pursuing models that are fatally flawed in almost every aspect. The only solution to this problem is to build and mentor commodity-focused teams, led by an industry-experienced technical specialist who has visited, worked on, studied, and understood as many real-life projects as possible in the global sense. Furthermore, such teams should not be ring-fenced to a single commodity, as is often the case, which limits opportunities to share ideas and technologies.

The junior sector – led from the rear-end

The junior exploration sector is often viewed as the panacea to all industry woes. ‘They will get out there and do what the majors cannot do themselves! They will innovate and find new solutions! They are more cost-effective! They will train the next generation!’ All these phrases are bandied about, but it has to be asked whether any of this is actually true. As previously indicated, a junior explorer has to work extremely hard to raise a relatively small amount of capital. Due to the nature of the business, this capital is generally only advanced to companies that have a direct line into drilling, and definition of mineral resources. A conceptual project is simply non-fundable. The timeframes required to be committed to for drilling are often too short to undertake an exploration program that will optimally evaluate a wide range of possibilities and drilling a scientific conceptual target hole for non-discovery purposes is akin to walking into a bar in Manchester with a Leeds United football shirt on! Together with the current social-media-led reporting hysteria for news flow every time the driller breaks wind (apologies readers), this is totally counter-productive to success. Given the above, it is remarkable for anyone to expect that training forms any part of a junior explorers’ agenda. There is simply no room, and no budget for training, particularly in an environment where mainly contractors are employed. The contractor is often placed in the unenviable situation of getting three years of experience 20 times over before retirement, not conducive to skills and experience development, and few are lucky enough to break out of this mould.

Of course, exploration is in many ways akin to blowing your cash on a game of two’s-up, and we all accept it, but to put our hopes on the junior sector is mind-blowingly optimistic. It will not solve any of the current Tier 1 discovery problems faced by the exploration industry.

Over-reliance on hackneyed ‘rule of thumb’ models

Many companies, of all sizes, tend to adopt exploration ranking strategies, based upon critical parameters of the target discovery. These often relate to deposits that do not exist. Alternatively, they can place constraints on exploration despite all the evidence saying, ‘here I am!’ My current favorite stories in this regard are the Kamoa (Congo) and Sakatti (Finland) discoveries, both of which were made despite subject experts from a major company saying they were not possible! The Ni-sulphide potential of the Fraser Range was also written off by an industry expert. These examples form a fundamental reason why AI exploration will not provide a solution as none of these discoveries fit the ‘model’, and programming is done by humans who believe in generic models and checklists. From my personal perspective, I often hear exploration for Ni-sulphide premised upon intrusion into sulphur-bearing sediments to induce saturation and deposition. However, this often flies in the face of sulphur isotope information, and also with respect to the genetic model – sulphide liquid needs to efficiently mix to sequestrate metal, which is at odds with local saturation. Mantle-derived magma interacts with crust at every stage through the crust, therefore contamination and sulphur saturation are ubiquitous. These non-informed constraints provide a barrier to discovery until someone who has not read the checklist arrives and simply follows their nose!

Final thoughts

The exploration industry is a dynamic, extremely technically challenging, and difficult business sector that is trying to understand and predict extremely complex processes that have occurred in the Earth’s crust. Unfortunately, or fortunately for some, the very nature of the challenge means that it is also possible for a farmer in the Outback or a herdsman in Tanzania to stumble upon a world-class discovery just by being observant and in the right place at the right time. While these discoveries may occur, there is no chance for them to provide a sustainable supply of metal to resource the growing and changing world. The exploration sector is also at a position in which there is a clear shortage of ability to meet the anticipated demand. This has been exacerbated by 30 years of minimal investment in capability and expertise building, along with obscene levels of financial revenue extraction to shareholders and bonuses. I argue that we are approaching an experiential tipping point, and that there needs to be a major rethink among the industry leaders. The major and larger mid-tier companies are the only potential solution to the crisis. Discovery-focused technical teams need to focus on economic geology as a separate, though aligned sector to academia, which is not equipped to fulfil the required role. Finally, mentorship and skills transfer should be prioritized before these skills and experience retire from the industry.

Read Issue 22 here: 

Issue 22 / 2023