How Much Gold Is Still in the Ground?

Posted on February 15, 2021

Gold mining has helped build civilizations around the world. Industries have diversified since the first gold rushes, but gold mining remains vital for the economy. How much gold is still in the ground is one factor that they may affect your investment choices. You can learn about how much gold is left to be mined by looking at the past, present and future of the gold mining industry.

When and Where Did Gold Mining Start?

Gold mining began in ancient times. It's unclear exactly when humans started gold mining, but archeologists have found gold flecks in Paleolithic caves as old as 40,000 B.C. Some of the earliest civilizations that we know used and mined gold include:

  • The Egyptians: This ancient civilization used gold from as early as 3,000 B.C. The Pyramids of Giza have gold capstones, and gold treasures filled the tombs of pharaohs. Their ancient maps showed the locations of gold mines and deposits [1].
  • The Lydian Empire: This ancient civilization based in modern-day Turkey created the first gold coin in the second half of the 7th century B.C. [2]. Before this time, people used gold and silver nuggets for currency.
  • The ancient Greeks: The ancient Greeks used gold as a status symbol. Gold was also used as currency and a symbol of wealth.
  • South American civilizations: Ancient South American civilizations, including the Incas and Aztecs, mined gold for their buildings and religious ceremonies [1].

How Has Gold Mining Evolved Over the Years?

Gold mining became something everyone could get involved with during the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century. Gold rushes around the world encouraged people to try their hand at gold mining and strike it rich. They worked hard to extract gold by hand, using picks and shovels. Some of the most prominent gold rushes occurred in the following locations:

  • North Carolina (1799): The United States' first major gold rush began when a young boy found a 17-pound nugget of gold in Cabarrus County.
  • California (1848-1849): The California gold rush attracted prospectors from around the world to its epicenter, San Francisco. Miners extracted more than 750,000 pounds of gold during this period [3].
  • Klondike (1896): The opportunity to find gold around the Klondike River and other parts of the Yukon and British Columbia was so tempting that prospectors mined through the area's harsh winters.
  • Australia (1850s and 1890s): In the mid- to late-19th century, Australia was the most-visited destination by prospectors. Mining activity focused on the east coast states of New South Wales and Victoria in the mid-19th century and Western Australia in its later years [1].

By the middle of the 19th century, in most countries, mining had become an industry. Hydraulic mining technology extracted gold from large open pits and underground mines more efficiently than independent miners working with manual tools could.

Recent inventions, including portable X-ray fluorescence analyzers and cross-belt analyzers, which assess sites and their likelihood of containing gold, have made gold mining faster, more efficient, and safer.

What Is the Gold Mining Volume Today?

Global gold mining industries extracted 3,531 tons of gold in 2019, according to the World Gold Council [4]. This is 1% less than the total volume of gold mined in 2018. Notably, this is the first decline in annual global gold production since 2008 [4].

Most of this gold comes from older mines that have been used for decades. New gold mines are sometimes found, but they rarely have the larger gold deposits of more established mines. Approximately 60% of the mines used today are surface mines. The remaining 40% are underground mines.

How Is Gold Mining Predicted to Change Over Time?

The small decline in global gold mining is no cause for concern, according to experts from the World Gold Council [4]. They suggest that gold extraction will probably flatline or even drop in coming years as companies deplete existing gold mines and new mine discoveries become less frequent. However, they say any decline probably won't be noticeable. Instead, we will probably see a gradual drop in gold extraction over the next few decades.

However, there is likely to be a dip in gold production for 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of the world's gold mines to totally or partially shut down to prevent the virus' spread.

Looking forward, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are still around 50,000 tons of gold reserves available. This is the amount of gold that is currently economic for mining at the current gold price. However, this figure is different from the world's gold resources. Gold resources may become economic for mining after further investigation or if gold prices rise.

It's unclear what the current gold reserves are. However, new technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart data mining and robotics may optimize processes and let us extract gold that we cannot reach today. This could increase gold resources and extraction volumes in the future.

There may also be a few untapped resources that aren't viable for gold extraction right now, but may be in the future. Studies show there is gold in the following as-yet unmined locations:

  • Antarctica
  • The ocean floor
  • The moon's surface

Currently, mining and transporting gold from all these locations is not economical, but you can never be sure what the future may hold. Technological advances may make gold extraction from these places more viable.

It's unclear exactly how much gold is still in the ground or how much gold is left to be mined. However, we do know that as long as we still have gold in the earth's surface, gold mining will continue being an important industry for generations to come.

Article Sources:

1. BeBusinessed.com. The History of Gold, https://bebusinessed.com/history/the-history-of-gold/. Accessed October 5, 2020.

2. Ancient History Encyclopedia. The Importance of the Lydian Stater as the World's First Coin, https://www.ancient.eu/article/797/the-importance-of-the-lydian-stater-as-the-worlds/. Accessed October 5, 2020.

3. History.com. California Gold Rush, https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/gold-rush-of-1849. Accessed October 5, 2020.

4. BBC News. How Much Gold Is There Left to Mine in the World?, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-54230737. Accessed October 5, 2020.