ST. GEORGE — Have you seen low-level helicopters flying above Washington County lately? Its stinger-like front has some members of the community asking questions. 

Jamey Jones, who serves as the associate science center director for the U.S. Geological Survey, told St. George News the helicopters are part of a national program called the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative.

“The goal of Earth MRI, as we call it, is to basically map the nation, especially in places where there is potential for mineral resources, particularly critical mineral sources, as presently defined,” Jones said. 

The Earth MRI project started in the U.S. in 2019. And after the center received a significant investment through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the project’s data collection abilities were accelerated.  

Jones said they started collecting data from Southern Utah last year and the data collection is ongoing. He said he predicts the project will be completed in the region within the next few months, and a published report will be available later this year.

A helicopter with a boom that contains sensitive equipment for conducting airborne geophysical surveys prepares for flight, location not specified, Sept. 14, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Jamey Jones, St. George News

One of the data types used is airborne geophysics. In other parts of the U.S., the surveys use fixed-winged airplanes, but due to Southwestern Utah’s rugged terrain, the use of a helicopter is required. 

The project includes the use of a Bell 206L3/AS350 helicopter. But why does it look like there’s a stinger attached to the front?

“In this case, the helicopter is carrying a magnetometer and a series of crystals to measure the magnetic field that the rocks are emitting across the region,” Jones said.

The survey looks for magnetic patterns to reveal information about the rocks themselves. The information obtained will help map the geology of the region more accurately, which is being done by the state of Utah.

“They’re basically mowing the lawn out there,” he said about the project in Southern Utah. “They’ll move on to other areas. It’s definitely slow-going with the helicopters. They don’t cover as much ground as quickly as other methods.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, flights will cover areas within Washington, Iron and Beaver counties. The flights will not include the reservation lands of the Paiute Tribe of Utah.

The flights will be based out of Parowan Airport, Cedar City Regional Airport, Hurricane Mesa Airport, St. George Regional Airport and Lincoln County Airport.

A graphic shows the Mineral Systems Map of the United States | Photo courtesy of Jamey Jones, St. George News

The helicopters will fly along pre-planned flight paths relatively low to the ground at about 300 feet above the surface. The ground clearance will be increased to 1,000 feet over populated areas and will comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Jones said.

All the information gathered from the survey will be assembled into an updated story of the geologic history and mineral resource potential of the U.S.

More information on USGS mineral resources research can be found at this link. To stay up to date on USGS mineral resources data and reports, follow them on Twitter.

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