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The Drift: Sudbury's Dynamic Earth aims to tell a 'modern mining' story

$10-million Go Deeper expansion project will be 'transformational’ for Sudbury tourist attraction

A premier Sudbury tourist attraction is undergoing a major renewal this year, one that its CEO calls “transformational,” both for the city and for the mining and tourism industries.

Go Deeper is a $10-million, multi-year construction and development endeavour to modernize Dynamic Earth, the sister attraction to Science North.

The plan involves new construction at the Big Nickel Road site, as well as additional programming and educational materials that will be accessed by users across Northern Ontario and Canada.

“It's not just a new gallery here, or just a new drift,” said Ashley Larose, the organization's CEO. "This is the biggest capital expansion that we've undertaken since we built Dynamic Earth in 2001. It's just so exciting.” 

Dynamic Earth began its life in the 1960s as Big Nickel Mine, a demonstration site used to show people what mining life was like underground. (Contrary to popular belief, it was never a working mine, Larose said.) The site came under the purview of Science North in 1984.

The earth sciences museum, celebrating the city's mining heritage, shares property space with the iconic Big Nickel attraction

Over the last two decades, however, the industry has dramatically modernized. Cramped, dark drifts (a horizontal tunnel in the rock) have given way to bright, expansive thoroughfares, and the industry leans heavily on innovation and sophisticated technology.

It's changed so much that Dynamic Earth today no longer paints an accurate picture of what mining is really like.

"So if our job is to show people modern mining, the current infrastructure doesn't let us do that,” Larose said. “That's why Go Deeper is so important.”

Project origins date to 2017

Conversations about Go Deeper began around 2017. At the point it was proposed as a $6-million project. The pandemic pushed back development dates and added to the price tag, but $10 million is "on market par for the work that we're doing here,”Larose noted.

The capital fundraising campaign launched last spring. Commitments are in place from the City of Greater Sudbury, the Government of Ontario ($1.5 million), and the Government of Canada ($1 million). Industry partners, too, are contributing money and in-kind donations, including Glencore, Agnico Eagle, and Technica Mining.

There are three distinct components to the project. The first is portable and interactive exhibits for partner locations and schools, along with programming geared toward Indigenous youth.

As part of its provincial mandate to serve all of Northern Ontario, “we're not properly serving the North if we don't also focus on Indigenous communities,” Larose said.

An Indigenous Advisory Committee is providing input, so the organization can “properly tell the history of the region,” which began long before colonization.

“The history of the region didn't start when it was colonized by Europeans,” Larose said. “There was history on this site and history of mining on this site long before colonial times, and so this is our chance to really tell that story and take some steps toward reconciliation.”

Watch below as project manager Jennifer Beaudry gives a video update on the Go Deeper expansion project:

Of the project, the biggest piece is the transformation of Dynamic Earth's Sudbury site.

Excavation was completed by Technica Mining in early February to make way for a new drift and building that will house modern technology, an event space and a gallery showcasing local innovations.

When visitors descend underground, they'll be treated to a new mining movie. They'll still be able to visit the historical drifts, but they'll now also be able to enter a modern drift — a bright, wide space where cell phones can pick up wi-fi and hard hats aren't required.

Large cutouts in the rock will be big enough to house equipment like battery-electric rockbreaking machines or scooptrams (a low-profile front-end loader) — there will be no diesel-powered equipment here — and machines can be swapped out for different technology when needed.

At the end of the drift, visitors will enter a huge, open event space, which Larose describes as being a third the size of the spacious Vale Cavern at Science North.  A projection map will be projected onto the rock.

“Literally, the rock's coming alive and telling us their history and their story,” Larose said. The technology is being developed by their in-house team. “There's nothing like this, ever, anywhere.”

Modern drift doubles as event space

When not occupied by visitors, the space can be rented for conventions, meetings, and other events. A catering kitchen is available for prepping food.

Visitors can also watch a new 20-minute film about Sudbury's regreening story. How the city was transformed from a barren landscape to the lush environment it is today is one of international renown.

Yet before now, nothing like this film has existed, said Larose.

"There's no one piece that tells you the story of Sudbury's regreening, so this is a great thing for the community to have.”

In the Glencore Innovation Gallery, local companies will have exhibitor space to showcase innovative products and get visitor feedback.

Larose said Dynamic Earth will be working with existing industry partners and recruiting new ones that want to see their products on display.

But not every product or company will qualify. To be eligible, their innovations have to have a wow factor, something that will appeal to visitors and inspire younger visitors to consider a career in the industry.

"It's to find that mix,” Larose said. “We really want to make sure that we're highlighting various careers in mining; a big driver behind this is workforce development.”

The lure of the video game

The final component of the project is being developed in partnership with the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM).

Initially, the industry organization wanted to create a travelling exhibit that would educate people on the mining cycle, Larose said.

But as the pandemic arrived and the province started shutting down, "no one was going anywhere; everything was closed,” she said.

"So how do we get a reach without necessarily having to build something that people come to visit?”

The result is a new mining video game, which is currently in alpha testing.

It takes its inspiration, in part, Larose said, from RollerCoaster Tycoon, a simulator game that challenges players to build their own unique, customized amusement parks.

In the Dynamic Earth game, players will have to manage their own mining projects, taking them through the entire mining cycle, from exploration to community engagement and development to environmental remediation at the closure stage.

Upon its launch, which Larose expects to happen shortly, it will be attached to school curricula so that educators across Canada can use it to teach students about mining, earth sciences, careers in mining, and more.

It will be available for free and, because not everyone has equal access to reliable, high-speed internet, users can also download the game for offline play.

"So one little project really will have a pan-Canadian reach, and we're well on our way.”

Various components of the project will launch through 2024, but Larose said the goal is to have the venue fully ready and open to the public by the start of that year's tourist season.

With the changes, Larose said, they expect to welcome 60,000 visitors annually, which is up an additional 20,000 from current numbers.

It will be a boon to the local tourist industry, but, more importantly, fulfill their directive to provide education about modern mining and the opportunities it presents.

Larose is excited about the idea of Dynamic Earth turning more kids onto the vast career opportunities in the sector, and doing its part to ensure a sustainable workforce.

"We can't understate how transformational this project will be,” Larose said.

"When you think about the legacy that the Big Nickel Mine created for educating the public about the mining industry, this is that next stage of that legacy.”