The edge of the Arctic Circle in northern Canada sounds an exotic, even romantic location from which to extract some of the world's most in-demand diamonds. Pulling 'ice' from the ice, as it were.
The reality of life at the majority Anglo-Australian-owned Diavik Diamond Mine is very different, although no less extraordinary.
On a stark and unforgiving tundra in Canada's Northwest Territories - just 220km south of the Arctic Circle - the Diavik mine is the country's largest in terms of carat production with between 6-7 million carats produced each year.
The location is also one of the most challenging on earth in which to run a mine, demanding maximisation of small weather windows and the navigation of an ice road connecting its supply route. Winters span eight months, with temperatures dropping to minus 45 degrees. Workers are flown to the remote mine site, a 20-square-kilometre island on Lac de Gras known as East Island.
Diavik is 60 per cent owned and operated by Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto, with the remainder owned by Canada's Dominion Diamond Corporation. While it commenced operation fairly recently, in 2003, the formidable history of the ancient rock (formed about 2.5 billion years ago) grants it a place among the world's oldest geological structures.
Diavik diamonds are clean and green and come with a proof of origin. That's branding par excellence.Peter Greene
Kimberlites are the roots of ancient volcanoes and are one of the paths along which diamonds are brought to light. Around 55 million years ago, volcanic activity deep within the earth injected kimberlite magma towards the surface, bringing with it diamond-bearing ore.
The Diavik Diamond pipes extend more than 400 metres underground and the rarity of diamond-bearing kimberlite means only 23 of the 5000 kimberlites found in the world contain enough diamonds to mine.
A miracle in the hand
Diavik extracts some of the world's most admired natural diamonds, lauded on the world stage for their clean and pure quality. They are prized for being especially white and lustrous, and for their display of a brilliant internal fire.
Parcels of rough diamonds are regularly sold on the international diamond market through Rio Tinto Diamonds' Antwerp sales and marketing office, as well as at special tenders catering for the large individual rough Diavik diamonds of 10.8 carats and above.
After their careful treatment by the best diamond cutters in the business, exquisite examples of Diavik diamonds are destined for engagement rings or statement, commissioned pieces of jewellery crafted by top tier diamond salons.
Peter Greene is the founder and executive chairman of Perth-based Solid Gold Diamonds. Originally from London, the master jeweller with training in the jewellery hub of Hatton Garden regularly creates bespoke jewellery featuring Diavik diamonds. Greene is also the exclusive wholesale distributor in Australia for 'Mine of Origin' Diavik diamonds, whereby every stone has been microscopically laser-etched with a marking to identify its origin and authenticity.
Demand for Diavik diamonds outstrips supply, and Greene attributes their unique selling pull to the physical attraction of their lustre coupled with a strong ethical and environmental story:
"The fact that Diavik diamonds are mined from a Rio Tinto mine that demonstrates the world's best practice is very important for today's discerning consumer," he says. "Diavik diamonds are clean and green and come with a proof of origin. That's branding par excellence."
Barren lands, magical skies
The majority of the mine's 1000 employees work two weeks at a time. At the end of their shifts, workers head 'home' to a self-contained city that has its own water and sewage treatment plant, as well as impressive indoor sporting facilities including a basketball court, a running track, and a golf driving range.
For the truly weather-hardy residents of this futuristic hub, there are permafrost pursuits aplenty such as dog-sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Or employees can sit back and admire the Northern Lights dancing above the highest clouds – one of the best locations in the world to view this most spectacular natural light show.
Equipping the mine site with fuel, cement, explosives, mining equipment, and life staples would be unfeasible without the aid of an icebound artery bringing essentials from Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories some 300 kilometres to the south-west.
Constructed annually to allow temporary transport to areas with no permanent road access, the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto Winter Road is the world's longest heavy-haul ice road and can extend 600 kilometres in its entirety. An ice road is a frozen, man-made pathway on the surface of bays, rivers, lakes, or seas in polar regions, linking dry land, waterways, and land portages.
Eighty-five per cent of the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto road is constructed over frozen lakes, with the remainder over land portages. The Winter Road is open for approximately eight weeks each winter, starting in the last week of January. It can accept light loads when the ice thickness reads 0.71 metres; for full weight capacity the ice thickness must have reached 1.04 metres.
The frozen life
For Liezl Van Wyk, who has been at Diavik for five years, rhythms of the 'fly-in-fly-out' site including its weather severities and disruption have become normal.
"Life here is intense and pretty fast. During my roster I work a 12-hour to 16-hour day, with little distraction as we stay totally in the Diavik environment," she explains. "Extreme weather only has an impact if you need to go outside; many people move between buildings and through the Arctic corridors, so they never need to step outside."
Nevertheless, Van Wyk - the manager of mine technical services and sustaining capital projects - and her colleagues don personal protective gear and follow safety protocols that mean workers are close to a heated building or vehicle at any given time and there is a buddy system whenever they work outside for any extended period of time.
The workforce has also been primed to keep an eye on the less obvious effects of limited hours of daylight. "With the prolonged darkness there is a chance of Seasonal Affected Disorder," says Van Wyk. "To mitigate this, it helps to eat nutritious food, take Vitamin D supplements, exercise and socialise. We're encouraged to do winter sports that get us outside enjoying the winter wonderland."
And it's a given that catching a flight in or out of the site is not always guaranteed. Seasonal weather issues that cause snow storms and poor visibility can mean the difference between flight delays of several hours or even several days.
Giving back to the brilliant expanse
Surrounded by one of the world's most untouched and sensitive ecosystems, the managers of the Diavik mine take their environmental responsibilities very seriously. Water, air, plant life, and wildlife are all assessed for any potential effects from the mine. Energy use is always a concern, and the unyielding wind's sole reprieve has been its ability to be harnessed as a power supply. It's one of several energy management initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Powering an Arctic mine on anything other than diesel fuel once seemed impossible, but the Diavik site has proven it can be done by taking advantage of the 50km/h winds. A wind farm of four turbines has reduced the mine's consumption of diesel by almost 10 per cent.
The underground mining team comprises 40 per cent Aboriginal workers, and the Diavik traditional knowledge panel of local community representatives is made of members holding expert knowledge in vegetation, water and native animals including the caribou. Other environmental strategies include water monitoring; land leases outlining responsible land management; vegetation and habitat surveying; forward planning for revegetation; and surveys of dust impact on air quality.
Aquatic effects are also audited with reports on fish health and numbers. Population figures are collected for the animals such as wolverines, grizzly bears, raptors and waterfowl that roam near the mine. Diavik conducts behavioural surveys of caribou that can be seen crossing through the Lac de Gras region during spring and autumn migrations.
Signs along the glistening Arctic highway indicate 'wildlife has the right of way'. It's an indication that what comes out of the ground at Diavik is not the only priority.