Skip to content

Searching for gas in the swampy Far North

When Stew Hamilton began explaining his theories about reduced chimneys and forest rings in Ontario’s Far North, he was greeted with a healthy dose of scientific skepticism.

When Stew Hamilton began explaining his theories about reduced chimneys and forest rings in Ontario’s Far North, he was greeted with a healthy dose of scientific skepticism.
A laser gas detector measures the concentration of methane gas in the air around a forest ring. The OGS believes forest rings in the Far North are holding undetermined quantities of natural gas.

His paper, printed in the Journal of Geochemical Exploration in 1998, was preceded by an editorial disclaimer warning readers that his work was “far from complete ... controversial” ... and was sure to “stimulate further argument.”

“This is a polite way of saying danger, highly controversial, do not read,” says a joking Hamilton, a geochemist with the Ontario Geological Survey in Sudbury and a world expert on forest rings.

Eight years later, his work is well accepted within the exploration geochemistry field.

His queries into the existence of reduced chimneys over mineral deposits - giant electrochemical cells in nature - opened a Pandora’s Box in the scientific community as to what causes them and what potential resources, such as coal bed methane, could lay beneath.

Today, his research has staked some comfortable middle ground within the geochemical community between being “highly speculative” and “proven fact” to “generally-accepted wisdom.”

But he welcomes the skepticism, fully realizing that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

As a distinguished lecturer for the Association of Applied Geochemists, Hamilton’s years of field work on forest rings and reduced chimneys created a wave of excitement in March while he was speaking at China’s Institute for Geophysical and Geochemical Research.

In April, he was anxiously awaiting results from an Ottawa lab on some gas samples taken from test wells last summer during his research of forest rings in the James Bay lowlands.

The land north of Hearst in the Martison Lake area is particularly good for finding forest rings.

Hamilton has documented 1,600 of them and estimates there are probably five times that many across Northern Ontario.

His interest in the rings began a few years ago when Sudbury prospector and geologist Bob Komarechka approached him with evidence of the strange, natural phenomena.

It was about the same time that he was figuring out how reduced chimneys, big centres of negative charge that frequently occur over metal deposits, work. A forest ring is a special case of a reduced chimney.

Hamilton was testing an analytical technique over a Matheson gold deposit to determine if there was any kind of geochemical surface signal. To his surprise, there were signals coming through 30 to 40 metres of glacial clay.

“We’re thinking there’s no way metals can move through clay 10,000 years after glaciation.”

After ruling out transport by ground water, diffusion and gas, he theorized it had to have been lifted to surface on electrical fields.

He applied the same theory to forest rings and discovered that they were also giant negatively charged cells.

Any source of negative charge will create a forest ring. But whether these occurrences contain vast quantities of minerals or large deposits of coal bed methane is one claim that Hamilton is not prepared to confirm.

“We don’t have any idea if these things are economical or not.”

But he estimates about 80 per cent of the 5,000 forest rings in Ontario are natural gas-based.

Now he wants to find out the exact source of the methane that’s naturally venting into the atmosphere.

During last summer’s fieldwork in the swampy forest north of Hearst, his research team cut lines through the dense bush and used a gas detector to measure the concentration of methane in the air.

“If you know the exact distance between two points, you can measure the methane per cubic metre,” says Hamilton.

The gas diffusion samplers taken from test holes were shipped off to a University of Ottawa lab to measure the

isotopic composition and ultimately identify the source of the gas.

Hamilton’s work has attracted keen interest from prospectors and geologists, including the Alberta Geological Survey, but the more conservative-minded energy companies are generally reluctant to accept new ideas.

“When I’m talking to mining companies about this theory, I’m preaching to the converted,” he says. “Nobody argues about it because the data is so good” but until the energy industry sees the full picture, “it’s just another wacky idea.”

But there’s also a fundamental scientific interest since methane can be a polluting greenhouse gas when free in the atmosphere, and may contribute to global warming.

For Hamilton, the hydrological aspects are especially mind-blowing.

There’s a bulge in the water table that occurs over the entire length of the forest ring with a profound dip on the ring’s outer edge.

“This is beyond science fiction, it’s unbelievable. I’m a hydrogeologist by training and that can’t happen by Darcy’s law,” which governs the movement of water in a porous medium like an aquifer. “This water is being held up (by electricity) against gravity.”

Hamilton says he’s been talking about this for years and is looking forward to publishing his work in a wider variety of scientific journals and industry trade publications.

Among his other findings so far are that forest rings can be a kilometre across, that they can overlap and they are six times more likely to occur in glacial marine soils where there’s ancient organic material like plankton in the sediment that produce natural gas and methane.

“There’s a million mysteries still there.”

His long-term plan is to undertake a more detailed study using conventional engineering and drilling techniques. But that’s an expensive proposition for even a preliminary test hole.

Hamilton is also reluctant to say if forest rings contain coal bed methane similar to the giant deposits found in Alberta.

But he says one exploration company searching for carbonatite at Martison Lake drilled through a coal deposit before tapping into an explosive pocket of gas that nearly destroyed their rig.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean large reserves, but it is interesting. The fact that there’s so many rings around Martison Lake suggests there’s a big source of methane somewhere and it’s not coming from the carbonatite.”

In the recent past, the James Bay lowlands has attracted some mild exploration interest from several companies, including Toronto junior gas producer, Admiral Bay Resources.

After wrapping up its 2005 winter drilling program in the Moose River area, the company concluded there were insufficient quantities of coal to continue looking for coal bed methane.