In this episode, we hear from Agnete Steenfelt, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about how she started out with the Geological Survey of Greenland in 1972 exploring for uranium – the beginnings of what would become a career that brought modern geochemical mapping and exploration to Greenland
15: Agnete Steenfelt – Exploring for uranium in East Greenland in the 1970s
Based on interviews held on September 26 and October 3, 2019 in Helsinge, Denmark
Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not evident in the transcript.
We were also, in fact, invited to China, as early as in 1981. They had a Ministry for uranium exploration with fifty thousand employed people. And I was thinking of our small uranium exploration unit in the survey with two people at that time. And our vast country to cover, Greenland.
Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.
In this episode, we hear from Agnete Steenfelt, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about how she started out with the Geological Survey of Greenland in 1972 exploring for uranium – the beginnings of what would become a career that brought modern geochemical mapping and exploration to Greenland.
I would like to start with my engagement with the Geological Survey of Greenland, which was in December of 1972. And I had my first field season in east Greenland in the summer of 1973. I was very excited because working in Greenland was really my dream job. When I studied, I was very interested in Greenland geology and I so wanted to be part of the team studying Greenland. And then the opportunity came that when Denmark joined the European Economic Community in 1972, the community allocated money to perform uranium exploration in member countries because they wanted to secure the fuel for what they thought would be a nuclear power program for Europe. Well it didn’t end up like that but anyway, some of that money was allocated to the survey and they could afford to employ some people to carry out the uranium exploration in Greenland. And I was one of them, which I was very pleased with because they had a rumour for not employing female geologists at the time because working in Greenland was considered a very tough job, only for boys, or men. But I, I had some field experience in Greenland from when I studied already.
Agnete had completed her PhD working with the Geological Survey in South Greenland.
So the people who engaged me knew that I was able to perform fieldwork. And then I was setting foot at Mestersvig airfield.
Mestersvig airfield is a gravel airstrip in east Greenland that had previously served the Mestersvig lead-zinc mine.
We were brought out from Iceland, and I was so impressed it was overwhelming. I mean this landscape, the snow, the air, the everything was very very impressive and quite different from what I had experienced in South Greenland.
I was transported to the field camp we had a hundred kilometres north of Mestersvig, out in the non-inhabited areas, and we had this Icelandic airplane, fixed wing airplane that we should use for our survey because when you start uranium exploration in an unknown area, and I mean there wasn’t any known uranium occurrences in east Greenland. So we’d started with this large white area where we needed to use a method whereby we could get some, some overview of the variation in uranium. And one of the ways you could do that is that you can measure the gamma radiation emitted from uranium, thorium, potassium. You can record that from the air and then you can cover large areas by flying over it, recording the gamma radiation as you go along. And this you can do with a gamma spectrometer, which you can afterwards analyse the signal you obtain and calculate the contribution from uranium and from thorium and from potassium. And then you can find where you have radiation emitted from uranium enrichments in the rocks.
And the way to do this was to fly along the fjords. I mean normally in surveying with an airplane you prefer to go in straight lines, north-south for example, or east west, depending on the character of the landscape and the geology. But this landscape in northern East Greenland that is so mountainous. So you need to follow the fjords and the valleys, fly along there, sort of midways between the glacier underneath and can you imagine that? You’re flying there, above a glacier and you have this marvelous view of the mountain slopes and the rock faces there. And you just fly along these valleys. I mean what an instruction to geology. You could see the fold structures in the cliffs and you could see the change from rock types. And this is a very, geologically very, variable area where you were going from schists to granites to gneisses to mafic rocks. And you could see all that from the air because there’s so little vegetation in that area.
I was given the job in some of these flights as navigator, meaning I was sitting next to the pilot and pointing to him where we should go. And I had a geological map in my lap and I was following the route we’d take on that map. To determine where the radiation came from, we had the instrument in the back of the plane and I had a field assistant there and he would be marking on the analogue recording. I mean this is from the days where you didn’t have digital recording. And everything was recorded on paper strips. That and with a needle like a seismograph, where the needle would move according to the radiation obtained on a piece of paper that was drawn along. And then to relate the point where you were, I mean the location in space or on the map, you had to talk into a tape recorder and then also tell your field assistant, “now we are at fiducial point number so-and-so,” and he would write that on the paper tape that was rolling along. And I was then commenting every time we passed a geological boundary I could see or any other landmark, I would say that to the tape recorder so we have a time control on when we passed this boundary or this valley or this fjord or when we were turning the plane.
A day was four to five hours of flying time and we landed and then of course we had to control that all the points were agreeing and then I had to write a written record of everything I had said to the tape recorder. So, it was another four or five hours to do this. But also it gave you a reminder of what you had actually seen.
We also measured by an altimeter, the height above ground. And there was a camera installed in the plane that continuously took photos of the overflown ground. So that we could use that if we had an anomaly, a high radiation for uranium, which we found out afterwards, we could go back to that area and find out from the photos what the ground looked like so we could use that to go back and find out more what was the radiation due to. And with hand-borne instruments, find this place again.
I was not alone in this. I mean we were two or three geologists taking care of this together with the technicians from, from a research laboratory in Denmark who had specialized in the measurement of gamma radiation.
There was not so much experience in Greenland when I started working with the survey. So I was very pleased there was money in the project to go to meetings where you would meet European and also Canadian and American specialists in uranium exploration and later on I also participated in many meetings in, in mineral exploration for other elements. Getting input and getting to know these people is very important.
I remember one of the first experiences I had with this was because of the uranium exploration and the cooperation on this between the European countries, that I was invited to meetings in Vienna in the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were invited to visit various uranium prospects in Europe. There are some in Italy, there are some in France. These are uranium occurrences we could visit and see and we could learn about how you can look at the rocks in there and find traces of uranium and how much radiation did they emit, so you could compare with what we had in Greenland. And find out what was the significance of what we were looking at in Greenland because we were uncertain about this.
We were also, in fact, this group of European uranium exploration experts, so to speak, invited to China as early in 1981, where China was still under the command of Chairman Mao. And where all the Chinese people wore blue suits, and these famous shoes that we in Denmark would call Mao shoes because they were, they were used in Denmark as very, very cheap indoor shoes. And it was, it was so amazing see these people. And we were invited to places in the countryside in China, to have a look at some of the, what they thought were uranium prospects. And some of these people had never seen European people before.
In those days, I mean in 80, in 81, they had a Ministry for uranium exploration with fifty thousand employed people! And I was, I was thinking of our small uranium exploration unit in the survey with two people at that time. And our vast country to cover, Greenland. Well China is also a vast country but at least they had people to do it. And the reason of course was that labour cost was no issue in China in those days. So they had all these fifty thousand employed and one spectrometer.
I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.
In the next episode, we hear more from emeritus professor Kent Brooks about the next phase in the story of the Skaergaard intrusion – discovering gold.