Aug 29, 2020

Deep seabed mining is the extension of terrestrial and shallow-water mining activities in the ocean in the quest for natural resources. For this to be accomplished , we require new technologies , approaches and advanced scientific knowledge, most of which have yet to be acquired and developed . We need to learn more about the deep sea .

There is general concern about the impact that deep sea mining will have on the ecosystems and natural habitats of the creatures and organisms of the deep , and how the practice can be managed. The practice is at an early stage – highly exploratory and experimental. Consequently, the extent of the adverse impacts on deep-sea ecosystems remains unknown. Whatever information we have , has led scientists to warn that biodiversity loss would be inevitable and possibly irreversible if deep seabed mining was permitted to occur, the activity could directly impact tens of thousands of square kilometers of seabed in deep abyssal plain areas and potentially release both toxic chemicals and vast sediment clouds .

The pace of development in this sector is breathtaking.  A new breed of specialized mining firms is poised to dive deep in its quest for rich sources of minerals, including metals and rare earth elements (REEs) for high tech and renewable energy industries.

It is essential that this quest for wealth is moderated by a strong set of mechanisms and controls which protect the marine environment and its flora & fauna , ensure that extreme care is taken, and allow the fair allocation of resources from the global commons for both current and also for future generations .

Potential for mineral wealth in the deep ocean was identified as early as the 1960s. However, attempts to mine have been unsuccessful so far as the reserves have proved too costly an affair to reach and intricate to mine. It is only very recently, as technological advancement has been matched by escalating commodity prices and exorbitant demand,  that the highly speculative practice has begun to be considered economically viable by few corporations .

The deep  blue sea — usually defined as the territory below 200 metres — is a world of extremes. Temperatures near the sea bed in many places hover near 0 °C, as there is complete darkness , and pressure level can exceed 1,000 bars, equivalent to having a couple of elephants standing on your one largest toe.  But still adaptive life thrives . The largely unexplored deep sea contains a vast array of ecosystems that researchers have barely begun to study.

Miners have focused on three environment types to explore for potential harvesting.  Waste materials are littered with metallic nodules that formed over millions of years as minerals precipitated around fish teeth, bones or other small objects. These regions are some of the quietest, most remote ecosystems on the planet, where fine sediment rains down at a rate of about one centimetre every 1,000 years. That low-energy environment is home to polychaete worms, crustaceans, sponges, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittlestars, sea urchins and various deep-sea fish, as well as countless microbial species and tiny sediment-dwelling creatures.

There is another type of mineral deposit - the metal-rich crust that covers seamounts, which rise thousands of metres high above the abyssal plains. These coatings are packed with precious metals such as cobalt, platinum and molybdenum. The seamount environment is dominated by corals, sponges and other filter feeders as well as tuna, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles.

A third form of mineral deposit that is attractive is the massive amount of sulphides — rich in copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver. These ores form around vents of superheated water that occur along the volcanic ridges running through ocean basins. The hydrothermal vents support creatures such as the small, blind yeti crab (Kiwatyleri) with its characteristic blonde, furry hair, and the scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallonsquamiferum), which armours its soft interior with an iron shell and is the first deep-sea animal to be declared endangered because of the threat of mining.

For years, it was presumed that the first deep-sea environment to be mined would be the hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea’s territorial waters. Nautilus Minerals in Toronto, Canada, was pursuing that project, but financial difficulties and local opposition derailed the venture, leaving the CCZ as the most likely test bed for deep-sea mining. Estimates suggest that the nodules in that region contain more cobalt, manganese and nickel than the total of all known deposits on land. The CCZ stretches from Hawaii to the Baja California Peninsula, and is as wide as the contiguous United States.