Accelerating onshore geoscience mapping

The IMMP aims to generate high-resolution integrated geoscience maps across the country at different scales and to maintain an impactful delivery of the core mandate of the CGS. By Dr Nigel Hicks, Specialist Scientist – Geoscience Mapping Lead at the Council for Geoscience.

Council for Geoscience - Mapping - Mpumalanga - South Africa
CGS staff examining an outcrop of Palaeoarchaean felsic agglomerate in the Barberton Greenstone Belt, Mpumalanga.

South Africa is renowned for its extensive and varied mineral resources, including gold, platinum, diamonds, chromium and manganese. In 2022, the country’s mining sector ranked sixth overall for global mineral production volume. Despite this, however, the sector faces numerous challenges at the dawn of the critical minerals era, the Just Transition and aspirations to achieve a net-zero global economy.

To contribute towards South Africa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) by securing a minimum of 5% of the global exploration expenditure by applying geoscience information and knowledge, the Council for Geoscience (CGS) is in its sixth year of executing its Integrated and Multidisciplinary Geoscience Mapping Programme (IMMP).

The IMMP aims to generate high-resolution integrated geoscience maps across the country at different scales and to maintain an impactful delivery of the core mandate of the CGS.

The programme was conceived to provide innovative and responsive geoscience solutions to support the National Development Plan 2030 and to contribute to, inter alia, economic growth, employment and job creation. The geoscience information collected is utilised to delineate geological formations and features that may enhance our understanding of a few earth processes, mineral and energy resources distribution, groundwater, land use, infrastructure, geohazards and geo-environmental pollution-related matters.

CGS scientist mapping landslides in Natal Group sandstones in KwaZulu-Natal.

The IMMP addresses four core themes in response to the national development imperatives for the geosciences. These are:

  • Economic growth (geosciences for mineral and energy resources, infrastructure and land use)
  • Environmental health (geosciences for infrastructure and land use, health, groundwater and the environment)
  • Innovation (geosciences collaboration with other institutions)
  • International relations (geoscience diplomacy).

Under the “Geoscience for mineral and energy resources” theme, the CGS collects, analyses and processes high-quality geological, geochemical, geophysical and mineral data, which will lower risks, while increasing confidence in exploration and mining, particularly in areas that remain underexplored. A priority of this programme, and a cornerstone of the CGS, is multidisciplinary onshore geoscience mapping at a greater level of detail (e.g. 1:50 000 scale) focussed on providing data to serve as a base to advise the state and various other stakeholders, including the public, in support of economic recovery projects in the country.

1:50 000 published map coverage in 2017 (top) prior to the implementation of the IMMP, compared to coverage as of 2023.

With a primary focus both on emerging critical minerals and base and precious metals, coal and industrial minerals (eg aggregate), the onshore geoscience mapping programme has achieved a significant increase in countrywide coverage, from below 5% prior to the commencement of the IMMP in 2017, to 12% at the end of the 2022–2023 financial year.

This increase relates to 230 out of a total of 1 916 1:50 000-scale maps having been published. For 2023–2024 the CGS has an ambitious plan to increase annual map publication to 80 maps, which will increase the total national coverage to 16%. Once published, the geoscience data is made available on the CGS portal which ensures that geological information is easily accessible to showcase the country’s exploration potential. This fast-tracked production approach has already yielded results as new geoscience data has identified potential hydrothermal and magmatic mineral targets in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, North West and Limpopo provinces.

These targets include critical minerals such as lithium, manganese, vanadium, fluorspar, phosphates and base metals. The geoscience-mapping programme has further been utilised to aid investigations into national energy security and the Just Energy Transition. These projects include research into geothermal potential as well as Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) which will augment the sustainable renewable energy programme in the medium to long term, reaffirming South Africa’s commitment to clean energy.

The multidisciplinary onshore-mapping programme also presents opportunities to contribute towards infrastructure and land-use development at provincial and municipal levels by producing detailed geological maps and associated geohazard risk assessments representing valuable tools for future land-use planning and the management of current infrastructure and development projects.

The onshore-mapping programme focusses on projects in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape provinces and in Mpumalanga, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo provinces. For the year ahead, the CGS will focus on the continued production of fundamental geological maps and associated data to be utilised across a range of sectors. These include applied geoscience solutions, mineral and energy resources, health, groundwater and the environment, infrastructure and land use and geoscience innovation.

CGS scientist identifying critical mineral-bearing pegmatite in Namaqualand, Northern Cape. Large pink spodumene crystals (a lithium aluminium silicate mineral) can be seen in a lepidolite matrix.

The CGS is privileged to be at the leading edge of rejuvenating and reimagining the exploration landscape in South Africa. Through the scientific and strategic goals of the IMMP and its 1:50 000-scale mapping programme, the CGS has positioned itself at the forefront of multidisciplinary mapping techniques in Africa and globally.

The aim of these initiatives is to provide integrated, systematic and thematic research products to contribute to the assessment and sustainable management of mineral, geohydrological and geo-environmental resources in South Africa. Consistent with the quality of South Africa’s geological endowment, the CGS mapping programme has shown that the country remains an exploration frontier in new emerging minerals markets.