In the first part of The New Gold Rush we described how the world is running out of many of the “rare metals” that modern technology relies on. Complicating the supply is that up to 97% of this production is monopolized by China. To find new sources for these metals, mining companies and nations are looking to deep sea mining in the Oceans. (photo – Nautilus Minerals)
The controversy between ocean conservationists that want to protect this largely unexplored and unexploited ocean area and the miners that want to bring these minerals to the surface is not necessarily without common ground.
So Is Deep Sea Mining Inevitable?
That might largely depend on the where, when and how the mining is to be done.
“Nations should act now to make sure our ocean is protected as this new industry develops,” says Conn Nugent, who is the director of the deep-sea mining project with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Not all environmentalists are completely opposed to the idea of mining the deep sea,” says Nugent. “We’d like to see the right safeguards in place to make sure it can be done with minimal harm.”
“We made a lot of mistakes in the early days of mining on land, but now we have a chance to get it right in the ocean,” Nugent adds.
The Where of Deep-Sea Mining
Deep sea mineral deposits can occur in several ways. Polymetallic nodules occur in vast areas, as in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean where they have formed at depths between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. These nodules, usually the size of small potatoes, grow at extremely slow rates, possibly one centimeter over the span of several million years. (photo – Pew Trust)
It is uncertain how they are formed; one theory suggests they result from the precipitation of metals out of seawater. The richest deposits can be composed of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt.
Other deposits are concentrated on the sides or summits of sea mounts at depths of 800 to 2,500 meters. The crust of these seamounts have thicknesses between 10 to 25 centimeters (4 to 10 inches), The basic mining method would be to scrape off the cobalt-rich layer leaving behind the less valuable rock beneath.
The richest deposits of minerals containing copper, zinc and gold occur around active or extinct hydrothermal vents. These massive sulfide deposits are usually found at depths between 4,600 to 12,000 feet. The vents form along fissures in the planet’s surface, hotspots caused by the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. With temperatures exceeding 600 Celsius, these underwater geysers spit out fluids that when mixed with icy sea water condense and precipitate minerals.
These seemingly hostile environments also support some of the planet’s most unique and extraordinary marine ecosystems. Entire communities containing octopus, tubeworms, crabs and snails–animals existing without sunlight. Having only been discovered in 1977 along the Galapagos Rift, there is still much that remains to be understood about the diversity of life that inhabit these very strange environments.
The mineral deposits surrounding hydrothermal vents are extraordinarily rich, up to ten times the yield that would be mined on land. And these resources are located in international waters around the world, uncontrolled by any one nation and open to all countries. This is the very reason that Japan has led with its own survey exploration in the deep waters off Okinawa
The When of Deep-Sea Mining
“We don’t yet know what we need to know,” concludes Cindy Van Dover who in 1982 was aboard the submersible Alvin on the first manned exploration of hydrothermal vents.
“There’s a particular type of research that needs to be done,” says Van Dover. “We haven’t yet studied the ecosystem services and functions of the deep sea to understand what we’d lose.”
Environmental groups like the Alliance of Slowara Warriors have joined with Greenpeace to urge an international moratorium on seabed mining, saying that the environmental impacts are too uncertain. Will marine organisms be smothered by the tailings introduced back into the sea after the minerals are processed? Will disturbing the sea bed release toxic minerals like mercury or led?
Can deep sea mining be delayed? Nautilus Minerals intends to move ahead with their Solwara 1 project in the territorial waters off Papua New Guinea planned to begin in early 2019. And the International Seabed Authority has already granted 27 exploration licenses.
The How of Deep Sea Mining
“This is going to be the world’s first exploitation of these kinds of deep resources,” adds Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign. Rosenbaum and the Mining Campaign are particularly concerned about the residue of heavy metals stirred up by mining and its impact on local communities and fish. (photo – Nautilius Minerals)
Protecting the deep ocean ecosystems must include rigorous oversight with clear and enforced regulations. This should include the expansion of the role that the International Seabed Authority plays in policing mining operations.
Another possibility is to dramatically increase Marine Protected Areas to protect more of the open oceans and its sea beds. MPAs now include only about 3% of the world’s oceans and only 1% of international waters.
“Protecting thirty percent of the ocean is a good place to start,” says Conn Nugent of the Pew Charitable Trust. The Pew also stresses the need for “rigorous third-party oversight of deep-sea mining operations, to ensure best practices are followed in disposal of tailings, handling of toxic materials, and minimizing harm to living things.”
“The International Seabed Authority also needs to increase its staffing and resources and should operate with more transparency,” says Nugent. Get all of the basics of Sea Bed Mining from this very informative primer on the Pew Trust website. And from National Geographic.
The International Seabed Authority
Established in 1994 through the UN, the International Seabed Authority is charged with protecting the ocean ecosystems from the impact of mining. They are also responsible for ensuring landlocked countries can share some of the benefits.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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