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Arctic geologists wanted; only the bold need apply
August 31, 2011 / 12:10 PM / 6 years ago

Arctic geologists wanted; only the bold need apply

This story is part of a package on Canadian Arctic which can be seen here:

* Canadian Arctic said to have massive mineral riches

* Challenges include bad weather, cold, polar bears

* Specialists predict crucial labor shortages

By David Ljunggren

IQALUIT, Nunavut, Aug 31 (Reuters) - One memorable Arctic trip in a battered DC-3 twin-engined propeller plane still makes Tom Hoefer laugh nervously.

“They were having problems with it and the pilot came back ... and said ‘If I yell at you that you need to do something for me, I want you to open the back door and I want you to throw out all this fish we have on board,'” he recalled.

Welcome to the gigantic deserted Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, home to supposed mineral riches and a stupendously challenging climate where temperatures often dip below minus 40 Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit.)

According to Hoefer, executive director of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut chamber of mines, that’s the point “when things start to break.” You don’t go outside unless you have to. You keep crucial engines running 24 hours a day.

And when the weather warms up, you need to keep an eye out for polar bears.

These are living conditions that deter all but the hardiest professionals.

One of those is Jennifer Pell, chief geologist with mining firm Peregrine Diamonds , who spends months a year working in one of the world’s most desolate regions, where animals easily outnumber humans.

She concedes polar bears “don’t always listen to what I think they should do,” and takes no chances.

“You make sure that if you have got a crew out that is not right with the helicopter, that they’re armed. And you make sure there’s a firearm in the helicopter ... before you land it, you fly around and look for moving white things,” she said.

Pell is quite used to taking a helicopter into the mountains with a stranger, a week’s worth of food and a small tent. After decades of work spent variously in Brazil, Guinea and Canada she is still enthused by the search for diamonds.

“You’re trying to find something, you’re trying to solve puzzles, you’re trying to understand the earth. It’s like a big detective hunt,” she said.

Others are fussier and this, combined with the challenges of working in the Arctic and the availability of jobs in more pleasant places, explains why some experts predict shortages of specialized labor in years to come.

Francis McGuire of Canada-based Major Drilling says it can take five years to teach someone how to drill in the Arctic. The next problem is getting them to live for months in a camp in the middle of nowhere, even when they can earn up to C$120,000 ($122,000) for six months’ work.

“Things have become much more comfortable in the last 10 years because now if you don’t give them satellite Internet they’re not going. It used to be ‘Guys, bring a book’, and now it’s ‘What do you mean I can’t Skype my girlfriend every night?'” he said.

“It’s hard to attract people, hard to train people, and even some of your trained people that have done it say ‘I spent the last five years up there, I don’t want to do it this season.'” he said. “Personally, I don’t know how people are going to do all the drilling they want to do up North and expect the quality. We’re going to have to dilute the quality.”

The potential shortages stretch to geologists, says Karen Costello, manager of mineral resources at the office of the federal aboriginal affairs ministry in Nunavut.

At recent mining trade shows and conferences, she said, “there were lots of people who were looking to hire geologists and it wasn’t just the junior companies, it was also some of the seniors.”

$1=$0.98 Canadian Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Claudia Parsons

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