ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The ancient Inca believed that gold came from the tears of the sun.
They actually weren't far off!
Today we now know that the only place in the universe where nuclear fusion burns hot enough to form gold is in the interior of exploding stars.
Our universe has existed for 14 billion years, enough for the exploding stars in The Milky Way Galaxy alone to blow off countless millions of tons of gold into interstellar space.
Actually, every substance on earth, including the ingredients that make-up human beings, is the remnant of exploded stars. Everything with the exception of hydrogen. Hydrogen was formed in the "Big Bang" that created the universe.
When the interstellar dust -- that would one day make up the planets -- accreted through gravitational attraction into planets, it became super-heated. Planets like earth were initially huge balls of molten rock. In that molten mix, the densest substances, like nickel and iron and gold settled -- in large amounts -- at the earth's core. That left Earth's crust nearly devoid of gold.
But ultimately, new surface-gold was delivered to our planet -- after it began to cool and solidify -- by asteroid impacts.
Much of the new surface gold again settled deep in the earth's crust and inyp its mantle.
But today that gold bubbles up through hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans.
Those vents spray out a precipitate laden with gold.
Over hundreds of millions of years crustal movements -- powered by convection currents in the Earth's mantle -- caused the Pacific plate to collide with the North American plate of earth's crust. Those crustal movements thrust up the mountains of California, Western Canada and Alaska.
In those mountains was the gold which -- eons ago -- was sprayed onto the ocean floor from those hydrothermal vents.
Lands that are rich in gold are often assembled from island arcs in a slow-motion collision with continental crust. They are also often mountainous places.
The streams that flow down from the mountains erode the gold, and -- in the old days -- placer gold miners panned for it.
In the past 11 years, gold has seen a huge spike in price. On the day before the September 11th attacks, it was worth just over $270 an ounce. By the summer of 2011, it had jumped to almost $2000 an ounce. That's a 600 percent rise! And that huge rise has brought new placer miners back to our state.
No wonder there's a new Alaskan Gold Rush! If you can find a pure chunk of gold -- about the volume of a football -- you'd be a millionaire! The trick, of course, is finding that much gold.
Gold deposits in industrial mines are measured at as little as 1-to-5 parts per million. The gold concentrations are so small, you can't even see them. According to National Geographic Magazine, to get the gold for a wedding ring, you have to crush 250 tons of rock.
Traditional Placer Miners -- those who work in streams -- count on Mother Nature to do the sorting out for them.
In the hundreds of millions of years that the sub-ocean crust was uplifted onto what has become Alaska, streams formed. They started eroding the mountains, delivering small nuggets of free gold down stream.
By putting a pan in the sediment -- and swirling it around -- a placer gold miner allows the heavy gold to float to the bottom of the pan. With lots of swirling of the pan full of water and sediment, he can allow the worthless sediment to flow out.. What's left on the bottom is sometimes flecks of gold.
Even a piece of gold the size of a pinhead can be worth five dollars.
It's a lot of work to find enough gold to make a day of panning worthwhile.
But it is possible to make a living that way. If you're very lucky, you might even strike it rich. But the odds of that aren't very high.
Nevertheless, the high price of gold has encouraged a new gold rush here in Alaska.
And as long as gold remains at nearly $1600 an ounce, that gold rush is likely to continue.