Tag Archives: Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ)

Cobalt v. Gummy Squirrels: Mining the Seabed for Real

Sometimes the sailors’ myths aren’t far off: The deep ocean really is filled with treasure and creatures most strange. For decades, one treasure—potato-size nodules rich in valuable metals that sit on the dark abyssal floor—has lured big-thinking entrepreneurs, while defying their engineers. But that could change April 2019 with the first deep-sea test of a bus-size machine designed to vacuum up these nodules.

The trial, run by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of the Belgian dredging giant DEME Group, will take place in the international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a nodule-rich area the width of the continental United States between Mexico and Hawaii. The Patania II collector, tethered to a ship more than 4 kilometers overhead, will attempt to suck up these nodules through four vacuums as it mows back and forth along a 400-meter-long strip.

Patantia Vessel for Deep Sea Mining by DEME

Ecologists worried about the effect of the treasure hunt on the fragile deep-sea organisms living among and beyond the nodules should get some answers, too. An independent group of scientists on the German R/V Sonne will accompany GSR’s vessel to monitor the effect of the Patania II’s traverses. The European-funded effort, called MiningImpact2, will inform regulations under development for seafloor mining,…

The nodules are abundant, and they are rich in cobalt, a costly metal important for many electronics that is now mined in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a conflict zone…Ideal for nodule formation, the CCZ is estimated to contain some 27 billion metric tons of the ore. But its abyssal plain is also a garden of exotic life forms. Craig Smith, a benthic ecologist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, has helped lead biological surveys in the CCZ that, in one case, revealed 330 species living in just 30 square kilometers, more than two-thirds of them new to science. The CCZ’s inhabitants include a giant squid worm,  green-yellow sea cucumbers that researchers called “gummy squirrels,” and a greater variety of bristle worms than ever reported before.

gummy squirrel on seabed

Mining could leave a lasting imprint on these ecosystems. In 2015, MiningImpact scientists visited the site of a 1980s experiment off Peru in which a small sledge was pulled along the bottom to simulate nodule harvesting. Three decades later, “It looked like the disturbance had taken place yesterday,” says Andrea Koschinsky… Many of the species in the deep seabed, such as corals and sponges, live right on the nodules. “They will be sucked up and are gone. You can’t go back.”Such concerns make many environmentalists wary of opening any of the deep sea to mining…

For one thing, the legal framework for mining in international waters is uncertain. Although the United Nations’s International Seabed Authority has granted contracts for exploration, it is still drafting rules that will govern commercial operations and set limits for environmental damage. The rules are unlikely to be final before 2021…

These sensors will focus on the plume of sediment the collector kicks up. The waters of the CCZ are some of the clearest in the world, and scientists have long feared that mining could spread a vast blanket of silt, hurting life far outside the mining area. Recent experiments, however, suggest most of the silt particles will clump together and fall out within a kilometer or two, Koschinsky says. But a film of finer nanoparticles might spread farther.

Excerpts from Scheme to Mine the Abyss Gets Sea Tria, Science,  Mar. 15, 2019

Mining the Seabed

In the 1960s and 1970s, amid worries about dwindling natural resources, several big companies looked into the idea of mining the ocean floor. They proved the principle by collecting hundreds of tonnes of manganese nodules…rich in cobalt, copper and nickel. As a commercial proposition, though, the idea never caught on. Working underwater proved too expensive and prospectors discovered new mines on dry land.

The International Seabed Authority, which looks after those parts of the ocean floor beyond coastal countries’ 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, has issued guidelines for the exploitation of submarine minerals.

One of the most advanced projects is that of Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm. In January 2016 Nautilus took delivery of three giant mining machines (two rock-cutters and an ore-collector) that move around the seabed on tracks, like tanks. It plans to start testing these this year. If all goes well the machines could then start operating commercially in Nautilus’s concession off the coast of Papua New Guinea, which prospecting shows contains ore with a copper concentration of 7%. (The average for terrestrially mined ore is 0.6%.) This ore also contains other valuable metals, including gold.

This approach (which is also that taken by firms such as Neptune Minerals, of Florida, and a Japanese consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) is different from earlier efforts. It involves mining not manganese nodules, but rather a type of geological formation unknown at the time people were looking into those nodules—submarine hydrothermal vents. These rocky towers, the first of which was discovered in 1977, form in places where jets of superheated, mineral-rich water shoot out from beneath the sea floor. They are found near undersea volcanoes and along the ocean ridges that mark the boundaries between Earth’s tectonic plates. They generally lie in shallower waters than manganese nodules, and often contain more valuable substances, gold among them.

They are not, though, as abundant as manganese nodules, so if and when the technology for underwater mining is proved, it is to nodules that people are likely to turn eventually. These really are there in enormous numbers. According to Dr Hannington, the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, a nodule field that stretches from the west coast of Mexico almost to Hawaii, contains by itself enough nickel and copper to meet global demand for several decades, and enough cobalt to last a century.

Mining, whether on land or underwater, does come at an environmental cost, though… [T]he sediments the nodules are found in play host to microscopic critters that would be most upset by the process of trawling that is needed to bring the nodules to the surface. They might take decades to recover from it.

Excerpts from, Oceanography: Fruits de mer, Economist, Feb. 25, 2017


Regulating Mining in the Deep Seabed

Interest in mining the deep seabed is not new; however, recent technological advances and increasing global demand for metals and rare-earth elements may make it economically viable in the near future  Since 2001, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted 26 contracts (18 in the last 4 years) to explore for minerals on the deep seabed, encompassing ∼1 million km2 in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans in areas beyond national jurisdiction However, as fragile habitat structures and extremely slow recovery rates leave diverse deep-sea communities vulnerable to physical disturbances such as those caused by mining (3), the current regulatory framework could be improved. We offer recommendations to support the application of a precautionary approach when the ISA meets later this July 2015….

The seabed outside of national jurisdictions [called the “Area” in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)] is legally part of  the “common heritage of mankind” and is not subject to direct claims by sovereign states. The common-heritage principle imposes a kind of trusteeship obligation on the ISA, created under UNCLOS in 1994, and its member states, wherein “the interests of future generations have to be respected in making use of the international commons”; those interests include both resource exploitation and environmental protection …

Efforts focused on the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) in the abyssal Pacific provide a useful model. The CCZ as the largest known concentrations of high-grade polymetallic nodules, with potentially great commercial value . The scale of impacts that would be associated with nodule mining in the CCZ may affect 100s to 1000s of km2 per mining operation per year . In 2007, an international workshop brought together expert representatives from ISA and the scientific and international ocean law communities to develop design principles and recommendations for a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the CCZ off-limits to mining, to be considered by the ISA as part of a regional environmental management plan. The workshop used a recent assessment of biodiversity, species ranges, and gene flow in the CCZ to develop recommendations honoring existing mining exploration claims while incorporating accepted principles of ecosystem management ..

In 2012, the ISA pioneered a precautionary approach in the CCZ when it provisionally adopted the deep seabed’s first environmental management plan that included Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs), a modified version of the recommended MPA network from the 2007 workshop. The design principles used in developing the APEIs included (i) compatibility with the existing legal framework of the ISA for managing seabed mining and protecting the marine environment. (ii) minimizing socioeconomic impacts by honoring existing exploration claims; (iii) maintaining sustainable, intact, and healthy marine populations; (iv) accounting for regional ecological gradients; (v) protecting a full range of habitat types; (vi) creating buffer zones to protect against external anthropogenic threats (e.g., mining plumes); and (vii) establishing straight-line boundaries to facilitate rapid recognition and compliance (12)….

Meanwhile, the ISA continues to grant exploration contracts for large areas of other deep-sea habitats in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. Preexisting or new exploration claims (up to ∼75,000 km2 for nodules) can erode the effectiveness of protected-area networks by preempting protection of critical habitats and by limiting population connectivity by causing excessive spacing between MPAs. We thus recommend that the ISA consider suspending further approval of exploration contracts (and not approve exploitation contracts) until MPA networks are designed and implemented for each targeted region.

Excerpts from L. M. Wedding et al., Managing mining of the deep seabed, Science 10 July 2015: