Last updated
Prospector and burro, western Colorado, USA, circa 1900 Prospector&Burro.jpg
Prospector and burro, western Colorado, USA, circa 1900
Schoolchildren learn to pan for gold, Denver, 1972
Rich specimen from a 2009 gold discovery by a prospector in southeastern Yukon Territory. The gold, deposited along a fracture, appears rusty-orange in this photo. Yukon Gold Discovery.jpg
Rich specimen from a 2009 gold discovery by a prospector in southeastern Yukon Territory. The gold, deposited along a fracture, appears rusty-orange in this photo.

Prospecting is the first stage of the geological analysis (followed by exploration) of a territory. It is the search for minerals, fossils, precious metals, or mineral specimens. It is also known as fossicking.


Traditionally prospecting relied on direct observation of mineralization in rock outcrops or in sediments. Modern prospecting also includes the use of geologic, geophysical, and geochemical tools to search for anomalies which can narrow the search area. Once an anomaly has been identified and interpreted to be a potential prospect direct observation can then be focused on this area. [1]

In some areas a prospector must also make claims, meaning they must erect posts with the appropriate placards on all four corners of a desired land they wish to prospect and register this claim before they may take samples. In other areas publicly held lands are open to prospecting without staking a mining claim.

Historical methods

Example of a prospecting pickaxe. Prospecting Pickaxe with rock.jpg
Example of a prospecting pickaxe.

The traditional methods of prospecting involved combing through the countryside, often through creek beds and along ridgelines and hilltops, often on hands and knees looking for signs of mineralisation in the outcrop. In the case of gold, all streams in an area would be panned at the appropriate trap sites looking for a show of 'colour' or gold in the river trail.

Once a small occurrence or show was found, it was then necessary to intensively work the area with pick and shovel, and often via the addition of some simple machinery such as a sluice box, races and winnows, to work the loose soil and rock looking for the appropriate materials (in this case, gold). For most base metal shows, the rock would have been mined by hand and crushed on site, the ore separated from the gangue by hand.

Often, these shows were short-lived, exhausted and abandoned quite soon, requiring the prospector to move onwards to the next and hopefully bigger and better show. Occasionally, though, the prospector would strike it rich and be joined by other prospectors and larger-scale mining would take place. Although these are thought of as "old" prospecting methods, these techniques are still used today but usually coupled with more advanced techniques such as geophysical magnetic or gravity surveys.

In most countries in the 19th and early 20th century, it was very unlikely that a prospector would retire rich even if he was the one who found the greatest of lodes. For instance Patrick (Paddy) Hannan, who discovered the Golden Mile, Kalgoorlie, died without receiving anywhere near a fraction of the value of the gold contained in the lodes. The same story repeated at Bendigo, Ballarat, Klondike and California.

The gold rushes

In the United States and Canada prospectors were lured by the promise of gold, silver, and other precious metals. They traveled across the mountains of the American West, carrying picks, shovels and gold pans. The majority of early prospectors had no training and relied mainly on luck to discover deposits.

Other gold rushes occurred in Papua New Guinea, Australia at least four times, Fiji, [2] South Africa and South America. In all cases, the gold rush was sparked by idle prospecting for gold and minerals which, when the prospector was successful, generated 'gold fever' and saw a wave of prospectors comb the countryside.

Modern prospecting

Modern prospectors today rely on training, the study of geology, and prospecting technology.

Knowledge of previous prospecting in an area helps in determining location of new prospective areas. Prospecting includes geological mapping, rock assay analysis, and sometimes the intuition of the prospector.

Prospecting of minerals found in mobile fluids, as is often the case of lithium, adds a "temporal element" to be considered. [3]

Metal detecting

Metal detectors are invaluable for gold prospectors, as they are quite effective at detecting gold nuggets within the soil down to around 1 metre (3 feet), depending on the acuity of the operator's hearing and skill.[ citation needed ]

Magnetic separators may be useful in separating the magnetic fraction of a heavy mineral sand from the nonmagnetic fraction, which may assist in the panning or sieving of gold from the soil or stream.

Prospecting pickaxe

Prospecting pickaxes are used to scrape at rocks and minerals, obtaining small samples that can be tested for trace amounts of ore. Modern prospecting pickaxes are also sometimes equipped with magnets, to aid in the gathering of ferromagnetic ores. Prospecting pickaxes are usually equipped with a triangular head, with a very sharp point.

Electromagnetic prospecting

The introduction of modern gravity and magnetic surveying methods has greatly facilitated the prospecting process. Airborne gravimeters and magnetometers can collect data from vast areas and highlight anomalous geologic features. [4] Three-dimensional inversions of audio-magnetotellurics (AMT) is used to find conductive materials up to a few kilometres into the Earth, which has been helpful to locate kimberlite pipes, as well as tungsten and copper. [5] [6]

Another relatively new prospecting technique is using low frequency electromagnetic (EM) waves for 'sounding' into the Earth's crust. These low frequency waves will respond differently based on the material they pass through, allowing for analysts to create three-dimensional images of potential ore bodies or volcanic intrusions. This technique is used for a variety of prospecting, but can mainly be for finding conductive materials. [7] So far these low frequency EM techniques have been proven for geothermal exploration as well as for coal bed methane analysis. [8] [9]

Geochemical prospecting

Geochemical prospecting involves analyzing the chemical properties of rock samples, drainage sediments, soils, surface and ground waters, mineral separates, atmospheric gases and particulates, and even plants and animals. Properties such as trace element abundances are analyzed systematically to locate anomalies. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Mining Extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the Earth

Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the Earth, usually from an ore body, lode, vein, seam, reef, or placer deposit. Exploitation of these deposits for raw material is based on the economic viability of investing in the equipment, labor, and energy required to extract, refine and transport the materials found at the mine to manufacturers who can use the material.

Magnetometer Device that measures magnetism

A magnetometer is a device that measures magnetic field or magnetic dipole moment. Different types of magnetometers measure the direction, strength, or relative change of a magnetic field at a particular location. A compass is one such device, one that measures the direction of an ambient magnetic field, in this case, the Earth's magnetic field. Other magnetometers measure the magnetic dipole moment of a magnetic material such as a ferromagnet, for example by recording the effect of this magnetic dipole on the induced current in a coil.

Metal detector Electronic instrument which detects the presence of metal nearby

A metal detector is an instrument that detects the presence of metal nearby. Metal detectors are useful for finding metal inclusions hidden within objects, or metal object buried underground. They often consist of a handheld unit with a sensor probe which can be swept over the ground or other objects. If the sensor comes near a piece of metal this is indicated by a changing tone in earphones, or a needle moving on an indicator. Usually the device gives some indication of distance; the closer the metal is, the higher the tone in the earphone or the higher the needle goes. Another common type are stationary "walk through" metal detectors used at access points in prisons, courthouses, airports and psychiatric hospitals to detect concealed metal weapons on a person's body.

Geophysical survey (archaeology) Non-invasive physical sensing techniques used for archaeological imaging or mapping

In archaeology, geophysical survey is ground-based physical sensing techniques used for archaeological imaging or mapping. Remote sensing and marine surveys are also used in archaeology, but are generally considered separate disciplines. Other terms, such as "geophysical prospection" and "archaeological geophysics" are generally synonymous.

A telluric current, or Earth current, is an electric current which moves underground or through the sea. Telluric currents result from both natural causes and human activity, and the discrete currents interact in a complex pattern. The currents are extremely low frequency and travel over large areas at or near the surface of the Earth.

Mining engineering Engineering discipline

Mining in the engineering discipline is the extraction of minerals from underneath, open pit, above or on the ground. Mining engineering is associated with many other disciplines, such as mineral processing, exploration, excavation, geology, and metallurgy, geotechnical engineering and surveying. A mining engineer may manage any phase of mining operations, from exploration and discovery of the mineral resources, through feasibility study, mine design, development of plans, production and operations to mine closure.

Gold prospecting Act of searching for new gold deposits

Gold prospecting is the act of searching for new gold deposits. Methods used vary with the type of deposit sought and the resources of the prospector. Although traditionally a commercial activity, in some developed countries placer gold prospecting has also become a popular outdoor recreation.

Exploration geophysics is an applied branch of geophysics and economic geology, which uses physical methods, such as seismic, gravitational, magnetic, electrical and electromagnetic at the surface of the Earth to measure the physical properties of the subsurface, along with the anomalies in those properties. It is most often used to detect or infer the presence and position of economically useful geological deposits, such as ore minerals; fossil fuels and other hydrocarbons; geothermal reservoirs; and groundwater reservoirs.

Magnetotellurics Electromagnetic geophysical technique

Magnetotellurics (MT) is an electromagnetic geophysical method for inferring the earth's subsurface electrical conductivity from measurements of natural geomagnetic and geoelectric field variation at the Earth's surface.

Kambalda type komatiitic nickel ore deposits are a class of magmatic iron-nickel-copper-platinum-group element ore deposit in which the physical processes of komatiite volcanology serve to deposit, concentrate and enrich a Fe-Ni-Cu-(PGE) sulfide melt within the lava flow environment of an erupting komatiite volcano.

Geophysical survey is the systematic collection of geophysical data for spatial studies. Detection and analysis of the geophysical signals forms the core of Geophysical signal processing. The magnetic and gravitational fields emanating from the Earth's interior hold essential information concerning seismic activities and the internal structure. Hence, detection and analysis of the electric and Magnetic fields is very crucial. As the Electromagnetic and gravitational waves are multi-dimensional signals, all the 1-D transformation techniques can be extended for the analysis of these signals as well. Hence this article also discusses multi-dimensional signal processing techniques.

Aeromagnetic survey Surveying method, analyzing the magnetic properties of large regions from high altitudes

An aeromagnetic survey is a common type of geophysical survey carried out using a magnetometer aboard or towed behind an aircraft. The principle is similar to a magnetic survey carried out with a hand-held magnetometer, but allows much larger areas of the Earth's surface to be covered quickly for regional reconnaissance. The aircraft typically flies in a grid-like pattern with height and line spacing determining the resolution of the data.

Transient electromagnetics,, is a geophysical exploration technique in which electric and magnetic fields are induced by transient pulses of electric current and the subsequent decay response measured. TEM / TDEM methods are generally able to determine subsurface electrical properties, but are also sensitive to subsurface magnetic properties in applications like UXO detection and characterization. TEM/TDEM surveys are a very common surface EM technique for mineral exploration, groundwater exploration, and for environmental mapping, used throughout the world in both onshore and offshore applications.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to geology:

Geologist Scientist who studies geology

A geologist is a scientist who studies the solid, liquid, and gaseous matter that constitutes Earth and other terrestrial planets, as well as the processes that shape them. Geologists usually study geology, although backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences are also useful. Field research is an important component of geology, although many subdisciplines incorporate laboratory and digitalised work.

Near-surface geophysics Geophysics of first tens of meters below surface

Near-surface geophysics is the use of geophysical methods to investigate small-scale features in the shallow subsurface. It is closely related to applied geophysics or exploration geophysics. Methods used include seismic refraction and reflection, gravity, magnetic, electric, and electromagnetic methods. Many of these methods were developed for oil and mineral exploration but are now used for a great variety of applications, including archaeology, environmental science, forensic science, military intelligence, geotechnical investigation, treasure hunting, and hydrogeology. In addition to the practical applications, near-surface geophysics includes the study of biogeochemical cycles.

Outline of geophysics Topics in the physics of the Earth and its vicinity

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to geophysics:

Dan Hausel a polymath of martial arts, geology, writing, astronomy, art, and public speaking. Hall-of-Fame 10th degree black belt grandmaster of Shorin-Ryu Karate and Kobudo, mineral exploration geologist who made several gold, colored gemstone, and diamond deposit discoveries in Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, author of more than 600 publications including books, maps, professional papers and magazine articles, public speaker, artist, former astronomy lecturer for the Hansen Planetarium in Utah, and former rock musician.

EMIGMA is a geophysics interpretation software platform developed by Petros Eikon Incorporated for data processing, simulation, inversion and imaging as well as other associated tasks. The software focuses on non-seismic applications and operates only on the Windows operating system. It supports files standard to the industry, instrument native formats as well as files used by other software in the industry such as AutoCAD, Google Earth and Oasis montaj. There is a free version of EMIGMA called EMIGMA Basic developed to allow viewing of databases created by licensed users. It does not allow data simulation nor modeling nor data import. The software is utilized by geoscientists for exploration and delineating purposes in mining, oil and gas and groundwater as well as hydrologists, environmental engineers, archaeologists and academic institutions for research purposes. Principal contributors to the software are R. W. Groom, H. Wu, E. Vassilenko, R. Jia, C. Ottay and C. Alvarez.

Decennial Mineral Exploration Conferences

The Decennial Mineral Exploration Conferences (DMEC) is a Canadian voluntary association dedicated to the advancement of geoscience applied to exploration for mineral resources. The inaugural 1967 conference "Canadian Centennial Conference on Mining and Groundwater Geophysics", held in Ottawa, Canada, was organized by the Geological Survey of Canada as part of the Canadian Centennial. While the original session focussed on mining and groundwater geophysics, the purpose of subsequent conferences expanded to include geochemistry, and other geoscience disciplines as they are applied in mineral exploration.


  1. "Mining - Prospecting and exploration". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  2. Fiji through a Prism of Geology and Mines Inspection. Chapter 5 in: White F. Miner with a Heart of Gold: biography of a mineral science and engineering educator. Friesen Press, Victoria. 2020. ISBN 978-1-5255-7765-9 (Hardcover) 978-1-5255-7766-6 (Paperback) 978-1-5255-7767-3 (eBook)
  3. Cabello, J. (2022). Reserves, resources and lithium exploration in the salt flats of northern Chile. Andean Geology . 49 (2): 297–306. doi: 10.5027/andgeoV49n2-3444. Retrieved July 2, 2022.
  4. Dobrin, Milton B. (1960). Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting .
  5. Farquharson, Colin; Craven, James (August 2009). "Three-dimensional inversion of magnetotelluric data for mineral exploration: An example from the McArthur River uranium deposit, Saskatchewan, Canada". Journal of Applied Geophysics. 68 (4): 450–458. Bibcode:2009JAG....68..450F. doi:10.1016/j.jappgeo.2008.02.002.
  6. Shi, Yuan (January 2020). "Three-dimensional audio-frequency magnetotelluric imaging of Zhuxi copper-tungsten polymetallic deposits, South China". Journal of Applied Geophysics. 172: 103910. Bibcode:2020JAG...17203910S. doi: 10.1016/j.jappgeo.2019.103910 .
  7. Singh, Anand; Sharma, S.P. (2015). "Fast imaging of subsurface conductors using very low-frequency electromagnetic data". Geophysical Prospecting. 63 (6).
  8. Wang, Nan (2017). "Passive super-low frequency electromagnetic prospecting technique". Frontiers of Earth Science. 11: 248–267.
  9. Van Der Kruk, J (2002). "An apparent-resistivity concept for low-frequency electromagnetic sounding techniques". Geophysical Prospecting. 48 (6).
  10. Fletcher, W.K. Analytical Methods in Geochemical Prospecting.