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Some of the world's most valuable diamonds are now being dug near the Arctic Circle.

Diamonds are sometimes called frozen fire. So it is fitting, perhaps, that some of the world's most valuable diamonds are now being dug from Canada's remote, treeless, frozen tundra. In BARREN LANDS: AN EPIC SEARCH FOR DIAMONDS IN THE NORTH AMERICAN ARCTIC (Holt, 2001), author Kevin Krajick tells the remarkable story of the centuries-old search for New World diamonds, and the pair of adventurous prospectors -- Chuck Fipke and Stew Blusson -- who ultimately discovered a fortune just south of the Arctic Circle.

Today, analysts say the EKATI Diamond Mine and nearby pits hold at least $20 billion worth of gemstones, making it one of the richest diamond-producing districts in the world. NATURE chatted with Krajick as he sat in his New York City home.

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An EKATI mine
An EKATI mine.
Are people surprised to learn that Canada is now a major diamond producer?

Well, when people think of diamonds, they usually think of South Africa. But people have been looking for diamonds in North America for a long, long time. In fact, one of Canada's earliest explorers, Jacques Cartier, thought he had found some near Quebec in the mid-1500s. He sent them back to the French king, but they turned out to be perfect, clear quartz crystals.

Within a few hundreds years, however, people had found real diamonds. There was even a working diamond mine in Murfreesboro, Arkansas in the early 1900s. You can still go there as a tourist and look for diamonds. Loose diamonds have also been found in Georgia, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, Texas, and about two dozen other states and Canadian provinces. Often the discoverers have been kids, who are the ideal diamond prospectors; they're built close to the ground, they like to pick things up, and sometimes they get lucky.

Why did prospectors start focusing on Canada?

Researchers began to recognize that diamonds occur in the world's oldest rocks. These "cratons" are the nuclei of the ancient continents, and have often lain undisturbed for more than 2 billion years. And if you look at geologic maps, you realize that there is this huge cratonic mass stretching across Canada down to the Great Lakes. So it's a natural place to look, and by the 1980s, 50 or 60 companies were running around in the United States and Canada looking for diamonds. It may have sounded ridiculous, but it made sense.

Initially, they found some indicator minerals [that indicate diamonds may be nearby], some diamonds, and even a few low grade kimberlites (volcanic structures that carry diamonds near the surface). But they weren't worth mining, and they couldn't find the source of the diamonds.

But Fipke and Blusson eventually got involved and didn't give up, did they?

Originally, Chuck Fipke wasn't even a diamond prospector, he was looking for copper and other minerals. He picked it up as he went along. But eventually he and Blusson made a key realization: That a lot of the indicator minerals that people were finding had come from somewhere else. They had been moved by the ice sheets a long time before.

I think the eureka moment was experienced by Blusson. Way up in northern Canada, near the edge of the tundra, he was walking across a stream near a place called Blackwater Lake, when he saw these pinkish boulders, and knew they had been carried in from the east. That's how they got on the trail, but it took them years to raise the money for the search. Then they began flying all over the tundra, picking up and testing samples, looking for indicator minerals. They made their discovery kind of by chance -- they just saw a good place to land a float plane from the air. But it had diamonds. Ironically, however, it appears it is not really the source of the indicator minerals they had found to the west. So there could be other diamond mines still out there, somewhere.

The EKATI mine finally opened in 1998. Has it proved profitable?

It is incredibly profitable. Industry analysts predict that within a few years, 18 percent of the world's diamonds are going to come from that area. It cost something like a billion dollars to build the mine, but they made that back in 4 years. Another competing mine has already opened nearby, and DeBeers, the big South African player in the market, will open one by 2006.

It's pretty remote out there, isn't it? You have to fly in most of the year, except in the winter, when they build an ice road to the mine?

This is really in the middle of nowhere. It's about 200 miles north of Yellowknife, the last town at the end of the road, and a little under 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The tundra is pretty flat and there are lots of lakes, so when everything freezes, they build this awesome ice highway. You can drive 30, 40 miles an hour. Interestingly, climate change is beginning to shorten the season of the ice road, which goes only on January and February for the most part. It's getting too warm to support the trucks. So a lot of stuff still goes up by aircraft during warmer months.

With finds like these, are diamonds still rare?

Diamonds are still pretty rare. Gold miners, for instance, measure their finds in ounces per ton of ore. But diamonds are measured in carats per hundred ton of rock -- it's like searching for one part in a million.

What's happened to the early diamonds found in North America?

A lot of them have disappeared. Some collections were stolen, while other big diamonds were cut up and lost their identity. The Uncle Sam diamond, at 40-plus carats, was the largest American diamond -- it was found in Murfreesboro. There is probably somebody walking around with a piece of that diamond and they don't even know it. I've heard they recently found something bigger than the Uncle Sam in Canada.

Do you share the public fascination with diamonds?

Yes and no. The whole thing about being fascinated by sparkly stones -- I don't really care much about that. The stones don't hold much attraction for me. I've never bought one for my wife, and she's been a good sport about that, at least so far. But I'm very interested in how people find them, and what they find out about the earth along the way. I like the journey.

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