As featured in the December/January 2020 Pick & Shovel Gazette
By Aaron Debee
Winter is here and along with it all of the seasonal changes we tend to expect for our respective regions. As enthusiasts of an outdoor interest like gold prospecting, though, we may want to consider some environmental conditions that typically go unnoticed by those with simple plans to spend their time inside this winter.
Water table elevations and annual precipitation totals, for instance, can have a significant impact on the amount of gold exposed in streams and larger waterways, which can affect the probability that it will show up in our pans. Below we take a look at some areas that have been affected by unusual weather events this year and what to expect in these areas as winter approaches. We’ll also talk about what this means for your prospecting opportunities.
As there are no El Niño or La Niña patterns active this year, the likelihood that winter weather will stray dramatically from average expectations is slim. In the absence of these patterns, winter weather temperatures and conditions are influenced by more routine climate patterns such as the Arctic Oscillation, which determines when and how many arctic air masses will reach down into the northern United States from the North Pole and Canada. The downside of such a winter weather dynamic, though, is that it reduces how far ahead weather and temperatures can be predicted, which may add an element of uncertainty to advance plans for prospecting in the north, especially the northern Midwest.
Major flooding, centered mostly around the Missouri River and its tributaries, occurred in the spring of 2019 in the midwestern section of the United States. During this unusual flooding, a significant amount of running water washed over massive tracts of land typically undisturbed by intense erosion events. Floodwaters can wash away loose layers of topsoil, which can sometimes expose rock and small mineral and metal deposits below. It is this combination of water and friction that creates the perfect opportunity for extracting previously inaccessible gold through panning and sluicing. As a result of this flooding, sediment-heavy areas in states like Nebraska, Missouri, South Dakota, Iowa, and Kansas may have experienced an injection of fresh tracer gold into the area streams and rivers.
The western Great Lakes and Northern Plains areas have an equal chance of having a slightly cooler or slightly warmer winter overall, and will fluctuate with the presence or the absence of arctic air masses from the north. This region is expected to experience a wetter-than-average winter, though, so we can expect waterways to maintain a healthy flow where and when it is not obstructed by freezing.
Despite a very wet early start to the year across most of the middle and eastern portions of the country, significant drought conditions developed over late summer and early autumn, particularly in the southeast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Resulting low water levels may have left tracer gold stranded in dry sediment and under crusted earth, concealing it from panners and sluicers trying their luck in these drought-stricken areas. All hope is not lost, however, as steady or heavy winter rains and melts expected in these areas, which include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, have the potential to release benched gold deposits and transport it back into running streams for panning and sluicing.
Most of the southeastern United States is expected to experience warmer-than-average temperatures this year, as is the entire Eastern Seaboard reaching westward to the eastern Great Lakes, according to NOAA. This may translate into fewer frozen waterways and a shorter prospecting off-season for those who prefer not to brave the harsher winter conditions. To the immediate west in Louisiana and eastern Texas, however, drier-than-average conditions are expected to continue, potentially leaving smaller waterways dry.
THE WEST, ALASKA, AND HAWAII
The Rocky Mountains, California, Alaska, and Hawaii, are particularly likely to experience a warmer-than-average winter. Eastern Montana, Hawaii, and Alaska are expected to experience a wetter-than-average winter, while most of central and northern California are expected to remain drier-than-average. The remainder of the western United States can expect an average amount of rainfall along with warmer-than-average temperatures, potentially increasing successful panning and sluicing opportunities.
WHEN WE PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
If we consider the weather events of this past year with this winter’s regional temperature and precipitation predictions, prospecting conditions for various areas of the country can be anticipated. The south-central and southeastern United States, after experiencing flash drought conditions, promise to remain comparatively dry and to experience a warmer-than-average winter, according to NOAA. While these mild conditions may make it pleasant to be outdoors, adequate water levels needed for panning and sluicing may be difficult to find.
The exact opposite may be true in the northern Midwest where an already wet year may end with additional precipitation and average winter temperatures. The most significant change in conditions may be experienced in areas like Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, where warmer-than-average winter temperatures and greater-than-average winter precipitation may swell waterways, liberating trace gold previously stranded in ground dried by the flash drought of late summer and early autumn.
Aaron DeBee is a freelance writer and travel guide based in Wisconsin.
This 2019-20 Winter Outlook map for temperature shows warmer-than-average temperatures are likely for much of the U.S. this winter. (Source NWS Climate Prediction Center | Map by NOAA Climate.gov)
This 2019-20 Winter Outlook map for precipitation shows wetter-than-average weather is most likely across the Northern Tier of the U.S. this coming winter. (Source NWS Climate Prediction Center | Map by NOAA Climate.gov)
Let Weather Be Your Guide
By Kevin Hoagland
When you look at the weather trends for the fall and winter of 2019 moving into the spring and summer 2020 mining seasons, remember that these are the best opportunities that prospectors will have had in a long time.
Take advantage of these up and downs in the weather to prospect, prospect, prospect to create your mining plans.
In areas where high water is expected, get out and watch the water flow. Seeing the high-water events is key to knowing where gold actually drops out.
Watch the flow lines around every boulder and tree, watch where the flows slow down, rather than trying to find them after the fact. Always remember that the “Gold is in the inside bend where the water is slowest” is a rule of thumb and not the be-all-end-all law of prospecting.
In drier-than-average climates, follow the trends of brief but powerful weather events. In Southern California, follow the Santa Ana wind trends.
Santa Ana winds originate in the Great Basin area. As these strong downslope winds push south into Southern California and into Baja, they strip and scrub a great deal of surface material away. This wind-driven movement of top sands can make all the difference in the world. That one target, the one you’ve been detecting to find for years, is suddenly detectable where is wasn’t just weeks ago.
Weather, no matter what, is a tool that you, as a prospector should be using daily. Not just to know if it is going to be a hot or cold day in the field, but to know what nature is doing for you to help you in your quest for gold.
Generations of prospectors before us would watch lightning to find an area that had a multitude of strikes then head out in hopes of finding iron-rich deposits to prospect these areas for gold. It worked out very well for many a prospector. Look at some old mining maps and see how many mines are named or associated with some sort of weather event.
Have a safe and happy holidays, and we'll see you out there!