I am currently creating a world from scratch, and while I have a map, I still need to figure out distribution of natural resources.

For resources like fossil fuels, while many do appear in deserts, I know that that isn't a prerequisites because fossil fuels also show up in places like Pennsylvania and Alaska. Are there specific geographic or geological features that determine where fossil fuels appear, or is it random? Also, along with this, are there specific features that determine where minerals (specifically precious stones, precious metals, and rare earth elements) appear?

  • $\begingroup$ I suspect that looking at where certain tectonic plates were at different times in the past will be crucial here, it's an interesting question, I look forward to teh question you'll get. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ This might be a question for Earth Science which is also about geology. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ Deserts have nothing to do with it. That the largest know concentration of oil is underneath a desert today is largely a coincidence. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, this is question number 1000! $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ Nice try, Freeport McMoran / Exxon Mobile intern! $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 22:32

6 Answers 6


"Where can I find the mineral resources?" In the real world, this question has received a huge amount of research, because finding petroleum/gold/uranium/whatever is extremely profitable. If you really want to be realistic about this, a good geology textbook will point you in the right direction.

I am not a geologist, but here's a drastically simplified version:

Petroleum and other fossil fuels formed from plant life. So they appear in sedimentary rocks, typically ones which formed from wetlands or shallow seas. Given plate tectonics, what was once an equatorial swamp can move over millions of years to the polar regions, which is why petroleum is found in Alaska and Siberia.

Metals are more usually in igneous rocks, which can appear anywhere but may be more easily accessible in hilly or mountainous regions.

As mentioned in Ghanima's answer, absolute scientific accuracy is not necessary and it's more important to have a good story. If you are dealing with a large land area (say, the size of the modern USA) it's reasonable to suppose it has significant deposits of all common minerals and most uncommon ones. (As pointed out in comments, substances like platinum and the rare earth metals may be harder to find.)

On the other hand, if a massive deposit of petroleum is central to your plot, it's worth doing a little research to make sure it is in a geologically realistic place.

  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly, even a country as large as the US doesn't have significant deposits of all minerals and resources. During the cold war, the need for importing strategic minerals like chromium, platinum, manganese, and cobalt was seen as a significant vulnerability of the US and helped shaped the often destructive foreign policies of the US towards Africa, which was (and remains) one of the primary producers of these materials. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ Good point -- edited to reflect that. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:09

First of all, as the world evolves, the terrain goes through big changes, so practically the answer appears to be "It's random."

Your question is very broad, as each resource is generated differently. But as you have mentioned fossil fuels, I can use it as an example.

Fossil fuels come from enormous amounts of dead lifeforms (more or less). So in the first place, they appear where there were big concentrations of life in the past (normally near the equator or warm places): for example, big forests, lakes with many lifeforms, or the delta of a river. Then they must be covered by soil: so for example, the terrain is buried by a volcano, or the terrain is covered by dust from wind. It must be covered to a great depth so there is enough pressure. Then it must be there for a very long period of time (so you can't burn a forest, cover it with sand, and the next month dig to find carbon). And then it must reemerge (or people dig to find it). In this process, tectonic plates can move around: for example, a forest that was on the equator can reappear in carbon form at the north pole.

On the other hand, precious metals were created when the galaxy or planet started to form (gold and uranium, for example, come from exploding stars), so they appear wherever they got merged into the planet. And keeping in mind that the ground is moving all the time, you find them in many places. But normally you find them concentrated in small areas.

More or less you can see that resources are generated in specific situations and places, but then they move around the world and can appear anywhere. So you can place them where you want, but then you may need to assume that the resources of this region formed in some other place.

Edit Reading the other answer, I got in my mind that I have to mention that the resources are randomly distributed, but the people are not. People settle where the resources appear. For example, in prehistory they settled where there were animals to hunt or fruits to collect and water to drink. Towns have been made near gold or coal mines so people can waste less time far away from home when working. And when people have settled where a resource can't be found, but other people have it, well, then or war or commerce happens (as moving a city is a little difficult ;) ).

A curious fact is that under specific circumstances a star can collapse and form a giant diamond, so somewhere in space will be a big, big, big diamond.

You can find more about the generation of precious metals on Wikipedia: Supernova nucleosynthesis.

And also check Wikpedia for other resources like carbon.

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    $\begingroup$ Props on the answer, I pretty much would have said the same. Just to add that due to how these resources are formed they can be feasibly anywhere in your world without anyone questioning its positioning. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ High concentrations of life is insufficient for petroleum. You need decomposition to be incomplete in order for petroleum to be created. Prehistoric forests are not a good source of oil today, prehistoric wetland is. $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ "On the other hand precious metals have been created when the galaxy or planet start to form ..." This is correct, but the heavy elements that were part of earth originally have very low concentration in the crust, because the early earth was molten; the elements sunk into the core. The rare elements we mine from the crust were brought to the earth from collisions with asteroids. $\endgroup$
    – mao47
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @mao47 Yes, you are right. With "...get merged into ..." I mean not only when it started to agglomerate matter but also when meteors (also created by stars) collide with the earth. $\endgroup$
    – PhoneixS
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr I totally agree with you although I hadn't enter in more details as this is not a compendium of how petroleum is created but to give the author of the question an idea of how it was done. $\endgroup$
    – PhoneixS
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 18:04

You can look quite a long way back into the planet's history to answer this.

Stars are formed from giant gas clouds called nebulae. When enough material accumulates in the nebula, it collapses under its own gravity. As it does so, the pressure causes a temperature increase. Eventually, nuclear fusion of hydrogen begins and a star is formed. The left over material in the nebula accumulates to form planets and asteroids.

The distribution, therefore, is a little bit random. The distribution of resources on a planet when it initially forms is determined by what resources are in the area it formed from.

After the planet forms, other processes such as tectonic movement and convection currents can alter the distribution of resources.

Tectonic movement is the large-scale movement of continental scale landmasses through propulsion by convection currents. This means that, as I'm sure you know, the tectonic plates move around, along with all the resources contained within them. The convection currents themselves can melt resources in the bottom of the plates and move them around.

So, to work out where your resources should go, you need to either pick randomly, pick to suit your story, or just run a random generator.


I am not convinced that it is absolutely necessary for story telling and world creation to base the distribution of natural ressources on hard science. That being said I'd focus more on the implications of the availability of ressources to the people your story is about. So if you want to encourage trade and exchange between tribes, civ's, nations for the sake of your story, distribute ressources so that they need to trade. If you want a civ with a major advantage over its neighbors bless them with an abandunce of ressources. Your plot revolves around people making do in a world of scarcity? Cut down their available ressources.

This approach saves you the trouble of designing the actual creation of natural ressources (e.g. fossil fuels) in the distant past and then covering processes like tectonics or sediment transport in detail that lead to a certain change over time (and thus to a given distribution at the time of the story). So I'd argue that the question of why ressources show up at a specific place (a certain place of your world) could be answered freely according to the need of the plot not the other way around. However, to make it sound credible or believable that the ressource is found there, it is highly advisable to investigate the occurrence, prospection and mining of the questionable materials. Even more convincing so if taking care of which materials tend to show up together. And while this essentially is the question I doubt that there'll be much use listing the according chapters of Wikipedia entries here - it's all pretty well sorted out there.

It is however noteworthy to keep in mind that the possible exploitation of natural resources changes drastically with technological level and progress. So pre-industrial civilizations will use wood as an energy source (or carrier to be more precise), while big-scale exploitation of coal and oil will start much later. Same goes for minerals, ores and raw materials. Prospection and exploitation (and discovering the stuff in the first place) will start where those materials are easily accesible.


Just a note, not all natural resources are found in even a large country like the USA, and some are financially inaccessible: ie: cost too much to mine (eg: platinum in the US)

We almost don't have platinum, for example. One mine (Montana). One (not too good) emerald mine (maybe, iirc). One diamond mine (also, not of very high quality). Rare earths, not all of 'em (Hello, China, South America & other places).

We have some minerals that nobody else has. In fact, one of our minerals means we don't have to have some technology, as we can just mine it and refine it cheaper.

Graphite was a critical strategic resource back in the day. Used for cannons, and there was ONE mine in the world. And Great Britain had it. Which was also a lock-down on pencils, which is why Napoléon offered big money for people to develop a way to fix it technologically.

Gold bubbles up, and forms up in crevices in the crust with high pressure water pulling it out via magma in the mantle. Which is where all the CA, NV, AZ, and .MX gold came from. Surface stuff is eroded, and alluvially washed out, which is why you get 'panning for gold' and 'golden fleece'.

Diamonds in diamond pipes / plugs. Then alluvially washed out, also like gold.

Oil under salt domes.


But yeah, put it where you want it.

Also, if you're running an RPG, many times there are biological/magical beings which create / consume materials, so they can become more evenly distributed / dropped in weird places. Plus planar activity and Gods / demigods / fairies.


In this story, why are you only thinking of fossil fuel? Water is one of the most important resources for everything (including survival), but also agriculture etc.... How about arid land for agricultural purposes? also to mix it up a little, how about some precious metals or even say diamonds?

An other great resource is also [geography][3] in itself - say your neighbors are superb rich, you're automatically well off! On the other hand, say you're landlocked, you're automatically worst off or in an area where your neighbors are also sending you adversaries or illicit drugs?

  • $\begingroup$ why are you only thinking of fossil fuel? Because it is HIS question and he wants to know only about fossil fuel. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ If you edit to suggest and expound upon what you suggested in terms of listing resources it'd be an ok answer. You have the seed of a good answer, but as it stands now you mistunderstood the question. He's not only focusing on fossil fuels, but is giving it as an example of a natural resource, which he'd like to know how they are distributed, not just only fossil fuels. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 0:26

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