Based upon an extensive database, this paper analyzes the record of modern mineral exploration success and establishes the 50-year trends in discovery.
The record clearly shows that the overall discovery rate rose during the 1950s and 1960s, peaked in the 1980s, and fell during the 1980s and 1990s. By commodity and ore-type target, the pattern of discovery is not continuous. Typically, it is episodic as a series of waves with minor resurgence. The waves reflect the order of the so-called discovery booms, led by uranium, then nickel, and copper, polymetallic base metals and gold. With the possible exception of gold, the discovery booms appear to be independent of metal price, although favorable perceptions of the price outlook may well have initiated the boom or led resurgence.
Although difficult to quantify, an emerging trend in modern discovery is the integration of several detection techniques into the search process. No doubt, this trend will continue as orebodies become more and more difficult to find.
The record of the past two decades shows that greenfield discovery rates have progressively fallen even though the level of investment in exploration has risen to an all-time high. This trend reflects increasing discovery risk. Several factors are contributing to this trend. Perhaps the two most important are: (1) deteriorating economics as increasing real costs and decreasing real prices continue to raise the economic hurdles for minimum acceptable exploration targets, and (2) increasing exploration maturity in many search terrains, particularly those in the traditional regions of North America and Australasia. To succeed cost-effectively in this new environment of increasing discovery risk will require extraordinary creativity, innovation, and technical skill coupled with commercial discipline.