Video footage from a deep-sea mining test, showing sediment discharging into the ocean, has raised fresh questions about the largely untested nature of the industry, and the possible harms it could do to ecosystems as companies push to begin full-scale exploration of the ocean floor as early as this year. The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian mining firm that is one of the leading industry players, spent September to November of 2022 testing its underwater extraction vehicle in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone, a section of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii.
But a group of scientists hired by the company to monitor its operations, concerned by what they saw, posted a video of what they said was a flawed process that accidentally released sediment into the ocean. The scientists also said the company fell short in its environmental monitoring strategy, according to documents viewed by the Guardian newspaper.
As the push for deep-sea mining intensifies, experts are increasingly concerned that companies will kick up clouds of sediment, which could be laden with toxic heavy metals that may harm marine life. At least 700 scientists – along with France, Germany and Chile – are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
In a post to its website, TMC acknowledged the incident, but framed the discharge from its cyclone separator as a “minor event” in which “a small amount” of sediment and nodule fragments spilled into the ocean. The company said it fixed the issue in its equipment to prevent further overflows and concluded that the incident “did not have the potential to cause serious harm”.
Experts and critics caution that the incident highlights the relative uncertainties surrounding deep-sea mining. Companies are scrambling to scavenge the ocean floor for valuable metals, used in electric vehicle batteries and a host of other technologies such as green energy production, amid a global fight for stable supply.
Excerpts from Leaked video footage of ocean pollution shines light on deep-sea mining, Guardian, Feb. 6, 2022
Biologists are working with engineers to develop new tools to accelerate the development of medicines derived from marine animals, focusing on ocean-going robots with onboard DNA-sequencing gear. They foresee fleets of autonomous submersible robots trolling the ocean like electronic bloodhounds to sniff out snippets of the animals’ DNA in seawater—and then gathering and analyzing this so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA.
“The ultimate goal is an underwater vehicle that collects environmental DNA samples, sequences them and then sends the data back to the lab,” says Kobun Truelove, senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “We would like to set up a network where you would have these autonomous vehicles out there sampling and then basically be getting the data back in real time.”
More than 1,000 marine-organism-derived compounds have shown anticancer, antiviral, antifungal or anti-inflammatory activity in medical assays, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 drugs derived from marine organisms, including ones for chronic pain and high cholesterol. Another 29 marine animal-derived compounds are now in clinical trials, according to the database.
Marine invertebrates are a key target of biomedical research because the animals—mostly attached to the seabed and unable to move—have evolved sophisticated chemical defenses to fend off fish, turtles and other predators in their environment. Research has shown that the natural toxins that comprise these defenses can be toxic to cancer cells and human pathogens. These sea creatures “make a broad range of different chemistries, things that synthetic chemists never thought of making,” says Barry O’Keefe, who have also identified compounds produced by bacteria living symbiotically with marine invertebrates. Once scientists have a suitable sample of eDNA and it’s been sequenced, they say, they can identify compounds the organisms are capable of producing. Then researchers can synthesize the compounds and test them to see if they have medicinal properties…
Collection of eDNA promises to be faster and less costly than the complex method commonly used collect marine specimens—one that Amy Wright, director of the natural products group at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, likens to a treasure hunt. Currently, research vessels on weekslong expeditions launch submersible vehicles equipped with clawlike grabbers and suction tubes for gathering specimens. Once the vehicles and their payload are back on the ships, researchers preserve them and deliver them to labs, where their genomes are sequenced. The entire process can take weeks and is expensive. Just paying the crew to operate a research vessel for a single day can cost $35,000, according to the National Science Foundation.
Excerpts from Eric Niile, Finding New Drugs From the Deep Sea via ‘eDNA’, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2022
The most extensive and densely populated breeding colony of fish anywhere lurks deep underneath the ice of the Weddell Sea.. The 240 square kilometers of regularly spaced icefish nests, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, has astonished marine ecologists. “We had no idea that it would be just on this scale, and I think that’s the most fantastic thing,” says Mark Belchier, a fish biologist…
In February 2021, the RV Polarstern—a large German research ship–came upon thousands of 75-centimeter-wide nests, each occupied by a single adult icefish—and up to 2100 eggs…High-resolution video and cameras captured more than 12,000 adult icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah)….The team on the RV Polarstern saw 16,160 closely packed fish nests, 76% of which were guarded by solitary males. Assuming a similar density of nests in the areas between the ship’s transects, the researchers estimate that about 60 million nests cover roughly 240 square kilometers.
The vast colony, the researchers say, is a new reason to create a marine protected area in the Weddell Sea…The Weddell Sea—a unique and largely undisturbed ecosystem—is already protected from a destructive fishing practice called bottom trawling…
Excerpt from Huge Icefish Colony Found, Science, Jan. 14, 2022
Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. Now billions of dollars earmarked for sustainable investment are going to companies with questionable environmental credentials and, in some cases, huge business risks. They include a Chinese incinerator company, an animal-waste processor that recently settled a state lawsuit over its emissions and a self-driving-truck technology company.
One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so. In 2020 an investment company professing a “strong commitment to sustainability” merged with the operator of an open-pit rare-earth mine in California at a $1.5 billion valuation. Although the mine has a history of environmental problems and has to bury low-level radioactive uranium waste, the company says it qualifies as green because rare earths are important for electric cars and because it doesn’t do as much harm as overseas rivals operating under looser regulations…
When it comes to green companies, “there just isn’t enough” to absorb investor demand…In response, MSCI has looked at other ways to rank companies for environmentally minded investors, for example ranking “the greenest within a dirty industry”….
Of all the industries seeking green money, deep-sea mining may be facing the harshest environmental headwinds. Biologists, oceanographers and the famous environmentalist David Attenborough have been calling for a yearslong halt of all deep-sea mining projects. A World Bank report warned of the risk of “irreversible damage to the environment and harm to the public” from seabed mining and urged caution. More than 300 deep-sea scientists released a statement today calling for a ban on all seabed mining until at least 2030. In late March 2021, Google, battery maker Samsung SDI Co., BMW AG and heavy truck maker Volvo Group announced that they wouldn’t buy metals from deep-sea mining.
Mapping of the ocean floor may expand under an order signed by President Donald Trump on in November, 2019 to create a federal plan to explore U.S. coastal waters. The announcement…comes amid growing international interest in charting the sea floor as unmanned aquatic drones and other new technologies promise to make the work cheaper and faster. The maps, also created by ship-towed sonar arrays, are crucial to understanding basic ocean dynamics, finding biological hot spots, and surveying mineral, oil, and gas deposits.
But much of the ocean floor remains unmapped; an international campaign called Seabed 2030 aims to map all of it in detail by 2030. Such maps cover just 40% of the 11.6 million square kilometers in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which extends 320 kilometers from the coasts of all U.S. states and territories—an area larger than the total U.S. land mass. Today, those maps are a hodgepodge drawn from government, industry, and academic research, says Vicki Ferrini, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. The federal plan, she says, could be a “game changer.”
Excerpts from United States to Survey Nearby Sea Floor, Science, Nov. 29, 2019, at 6469
There are about 30 000 mountains under the sea, the so-called “seamounts.” One of them the Tropic Seamount started as a volcano, 120 million years ago. It lies at the southern tail of a chain that includes submerged peaks as well as the Canary Islands off the coast of Western Sahara. The seamount rises 3 kilometers from the ocean floor and is topped by a plateau 50 kilometers wide, 1 kilometer below the sea surface. Above ground, it would rank among the world’s 100 tallest mountains…. Much of its surface is encrusted with minerals that precipitated out of the seawater over eons, coating the lava at the excruciatingly slow rate of 1 centimeter or less every 1 million years.
That coating has caught the eye of prospectors. Called ferromanganese crust, it can contain high concentrations of cobalt, tellurium, and rare-earth elements used in electronics such as wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. By one estimate, seamounts in just one chunk of the North Pacific Ocean could hold 50 million tons of cobalt—seven times the worldwide total that’s economical to dig up on land. Such estimates arrive at a time when the International Energy Agency in Vienna is warning of a possible cobalt supply crunch by 2030, caused in part by the growing production of battery-powered cars.
Companies hoping to extract those metals from the seabed are focusing first on abyssal plains. Those flat expanses of the deep ocean floor can be littered with potatolike nodules rich in nickel, copper, and cobalt. They are also looking at hydrothermal vents that spew mineral-laden water, creating thick crusts and fantastical rock chimneys. Seventeen companies have permits to explore for minerals in one abyssal region, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. And in 2017, Japan became the first nation to conduct large-scale experimental mining of a dead hydrothermal vent off the coast of Okinawa, inside Japan’s national waters. But the crusts on seamounts have particularly high concentrations of sought-after metals, making them a tempting target…
[Scientists are worried] that what they have learned from the the Tropic Seamount puts mining and conservation on a collision course. “The conditions that seem to favor the growth of the crusts,” he says, “also seem to favor the colonization by a lot of corals and sponges.”
Seamounts cover roughtly the same area as Russia and Europe combined, by one estimate, making them one of the planet’s largest habitats. The peaks have long been known as oases for sea life….Schools of fish—brick-red orange roughy, silvery pelagic armorheads, and goggle-eyed black oreos—often congregate at seamounts, as do sharks and tuna. Some migratory humpback whales appear to use them as navigational markers, spawning grounds, and resting spots. Seabirds gather above them, and myriad corals and sponges cling to their rocky surfaces, creating ample cover for other creatures.
Interest in seamounts is particularly high in countries that either host companies interested in deep-sea mining or are considering allowing mining in their national waters. In 2018, the Chinese research ship Kexue (meaning “science”) spent about 1 month surveying the Magellan Seamounts near the Mariana Trench, which several nations see as a potential source of industrial minerals. Brazilian researchers teamed up with Murton’s MarineE-tech project to examine an area in international waters where the country has a preliminary mining claim. Japanese scientists sent robots to survey seamounts that might be ripe for mining. In late July, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, a part of the United Nations that governs deep-sea mining in international waters, released 18 years of environmental data gathered by companies pursuing mining claims, including on seamounts….
The design of seamount mining equipment is closely guarded by competing countries and companies. But it could work much like equipment being tested for hydrothermal vents: enormous, remote-controlled machines that resemble bulldozers, equipped with toothed wheels designed to grind the crust into bits that can be carried to the ocean surface for processing.
Although no seamount has been mined yet, scientists point to the damage from deep-sea fishing to underscore why they worry this heavy machinery would do irreparable damage. In the late 1990s, Australian scientists documented devastation from nets dragged across seamounts near Tasmania to catch orange roughy. Hard corals had been wiped out, and the sheer mass of life on the mountains was half that on nearby ones too deep to be fished. Fifteen years after trawling was halted on some New Zealand seamounts, Clark and other researchers found little evidence of recovery.
Excerpts from Warren Cornwall, Sunken Summits, Science, Sept 13, 2019
A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…
Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.
To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.
The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)
Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…
There’s also a proposal to makethe North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”
Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019
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.
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.
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
Those involved in deep-sea mining hope it will turn into a multi-billion dollar industry. Seabed nodules are dominated by compounds of iron (which is commonplace) and manganese (which is rarer, but not in short supply from mines on dry land). However, the nodules also contain copper, nickel and cobalt, and sometimes other metals such as molybdenum and vanadium. These are in sufficient demand that visiting the bottom of the ocean to acquire them looks a worthwhile enterprise. Moreover, these metals seldom co-occur in terrestrial mines. So, as Kris Van Nijen, who runs deep-sea mining operations at Global Sea Mineral Resources (gsr), a company interested in exploiting the nodules, observes: “For the same amount of effort, you get the same metals as two or three mines on land.”
Though their location several kilometres beneath the ocean surface makes the nodules hard to get at in one sense, in another they are easily accessible, because they sit invitingly on the seabed, almost begging to be collected. Most are found on parts of the ocean floor like the Clarion Clipperton Zone (ccz), outside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of littoral countries. They thus fall under the purview of the International Seabed Authority (isa), which has issued 17 exploration licences for such resources. All but one of these licences pertain to the ccz, an area of about 6m square kilometres east-south-east of Hawaii.
The licensees include Belgium, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea, as well as several small Pacific island states. America, which is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that established the isa, is not involved directly, but at least one American firm, Lockheed Martin, has an interest in the matter through a British subsidiary, uk Seabed Resources. And people are getting busy. Surveying expeditions have already visited the concessions. On land, the required mining machines are being built and tested. What worries biologists is that if all this busyness does lead to mining, it will wreck habitats before they can be properly catalogued, let alone understood.
Some of the ccz’s creatures stretch the imagination. There is the bizarre, gelatinous, yellow “gummy squirrel”, a 50cm-long sea cucumber with a tall, wide tail that may operate like a sail. There are galloping sea urchins that can scurry across the sea floor on long spines, at speeds of several centimetres a second. There are giant red shrimps, measuring up to 40cm long. And there are “Dumbo” octopuses, which have earlike fins above their eyes, giving them an eerie resemblance to a well-known cartoon elephant…Of 154 species of bristle worms the surveyors found, 70% were previously unknown.
the Whale fossils, sea cucumbers and shrimps are just the stuff that is visible to the naked eye. Adrian Glover, one of Dr Amon’s colleagues at the Natural History Museum, and his collaborators spent weeks peering down microscopes, inspecting every nook and cranny of the surfaces of some of the nodules themselves. They discovered a miniature ecosystem composed of things that look, at first sight, like flecks of colour—but are, in fact, tiny corals, sponges, fan-like worms and bryozoans, all just millimetres tall. In total, the team logged 77 species of such creatures, probably an underestimate.
Inevitably, much of this life will be damaged by nodule mining. The impacts are likely be long-lasting. Deep-sea mining technology is still in development, but the general idea is that submersible craft equipped with giant vacuum cleaners will suck nodules from the seafloor. Those nodules will be carried up several kilometres of pipes back to the operations’ mother ships, to be washed and sent on their way.
The largest disturbance experiment so far was carried out in 1989 in the Peru Basin, a nodule field to the south of the Galapagos Islands. An eight-metre-wide metal frame fitted with ploughs and harrows was dragged back and forth repeatedly across the seabed, scouring it and wafting a plume of sediment into the water…. The big question was, 26 years after the event, would the sea floor have recovered? The answer was a resounding “no”. The robots brought back images of plough tracks that looked fresh, and of wildlife that had not recovered from the decades-old intrusion.
Conservation and seabed minerals: Mining the deep ocean will soon begin, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018
Patania One became in May 217the first robot in 40 years to be lowered to the sea floor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), about 5,000 metres beneath the Pacific ocean…There it gathered data about the seabed and how larger robots might move carefully across it, sucking up valuable minerals en route.
The CCZ is a 6m square-kilometre (2.3m square-mile) tract between two of the long, straight “fracture zones” which the stresses of plate tectonics have created in the crust beneath the Pacific. Scattered across it are trillions of fist-sized mineral nodules, each the result of tens of millions of years of slow agglomeration around a core of bone, shell or rock. Such nodules are quite common in the Pacific, but the CCZ is the only part of the basin where the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates such matters beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of individual countries, currently permits exploration. Companies from Japan, Russia, China and a couple of dozen other countries have been granted concessions to explore for minerals in the CCZ. The ISA is expected to approve the first actual mining in 2019 or 2020.
This could be big business. James Hein of the United States Geological Survey and colleagues estimated in a paper in 2012 that the CCZ holds more nickel, cobalt and manganese than all known terrestrial deposits of those metals put together. The World Bank expects the battery industry’s demand for these, and other, minerals to increase if the transition to clean energy speeds up enough to keep global temperatures below the limits set in the Paris agreement on climate.
One of the firms attracted by this vast potential market is DEME, a Belgian dredging company ….Korea, Japan and China all have state-run research projects looking to dredge nodules from the deep sea with robots: “It really is a race,” says Kris Van Nijen, who runs DEME’s deep-sea mining efforts…
[It was expected]that deep-sea mining would develop rapidly by the 1980s. A lack of demand (and thus investment), technological capacity and appropriate regulation kept that from happening. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which set up the ISA, was not signed until 1982. (America has still not ratified it, and thus cannot apply to the ISA for sea-floor-mining permits.)
Mr Van Nijen and his competitors think that now, at last, the time is right. DEME is currently building Patania Two, or P2… In order to satisfy the ISA, this new machine does not just have to show it can harvest nodules; it also has to show that it can do so in an environmentally sensitive way. Its harvesting will throw up plumes of silt which, in settling, could swamp the sea floor’s delicate ecosystem. A survey of CCZ life in 2016 found a surprising diversity of life. Of the 12 animal species collected, seven were new to science…
The CCZ is not the only sea floor that has found itself in miners’ sights. Nautilus, a Canadian firm, says it will soon start mining the seabed in Papua New Guinea’s EEZ for gold and copper, though at the time of writing the ship it had commissioned for the purpose sits unfinished in a Chinese yard. A Saudi Arabian firm called Manafai wants to mine the bed of the Red Sea, which is rich in metals from zinc to gold. There are projects to mine iron sands off the coast of New Zealand and manganese crusts off the coast of Japan. De Beers already mines a significant proportion of its diamonds from the sea floor off the coast of Namibia, although in just 150 metres of water this is far less of a technical challenge.
If the various precautions work out, the benefits of deep-sea mining might be felt above the water as well. Mining minerals on land can require clearing away forests and other ecosystems in order to gain access, and moving hundreds of millions of tonnes of rock to get down to the ores. Local and indigenous people have often come out poorly from the deals made between miners and governments. Deep-sea mining will probably produce lower grade ores, but it will do so without affecting human populations.
Undersea Mining: Race to the Bottom, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018
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
Three billion dollars sounds a lot to spend on a map. But if it is a map of two-thirds of Earth’s surface, then the cost per square kilometre, about $8.30, is not, perhaps, too bad. And making such a map at such a cost is just what an organisation called the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) is proposing to do. GEBCO, based in Monaco, has been around since 1903. Its remit, as its name suggests, is to chart the seabed completely. Until now, it has managed less than a fifth of that task in detail. But means of mapping the depths have improved by leaps and bounds over recent decades. So, with the aid of the Nippon Foundation, a large, Japanese philanthropic outfit, GEBCO now proposes to do the job properly. It plans to complete its mission by 2030….
Despite water’s apparent transparency, the sea absorbs light so well that anywhere below 200 metres is in pitch darkness. Radio waves (and thus radar) are similarly absorbed. Sound waves do not suffer from this problem, which is why sonar works for things like hunting submarines. But you cannot make sonic maps from a satellite. For that, you have to use the old-fashioned method of pinging sonar from a ship. Which is just what GEBCO plans to do.,,,
[The technique used to map the sea floor] is “echo sounding”, using sonar reflected from the seabed. Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen of Columbia University, in New York, pioneered the technique in the 1950s and 1960s by using technology developed during the second world war. With it, they mapped part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain chain…
Cable-laying companies, oil firms, academic oceanography laboratories, national hydrographic surveys and the world’s navies all have oodles of sounding data. One of GEBCO’s jobs is to gather this existing information together and sew it into a new database, to create a coherent portrayal of the known ocean floor. The organisation is also keen to include data collected by helpful volunteers. A new digital platform overseen by America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages the crowdsourcing of bathymetric data, letting mariners upload their findings easily. Recent political initiatives, such as a deal made in Galway in 2013 between America, Canada and the European Union to support transatlantic floor-mapping, will also boost efforts. National icebreakers are gathering information in parts of the ocean too frozen for other vessels to reach. And GEBCO is trying to persuade governments and companies with proprietary data on the sea floor to share them. One such firm, a cable-laying outfit called Quintillion, has already agreed to do so…
[A] accurate map of the seabed may help open this unknown two-thirds of Earth’s surface to economic activity. ..[T]he world’s navies (or, at least, those among them with submarine capability) will also take an interest—for an accurate seabed map will both show good places for their boats to hide and suggest where their rivals’ vessels might be secreted. Whether they will welcome GEBCO making this information public is a different question
Excerpt from Bathymetry: In an octopus’s garden, Economist, Oct. 29, 2016
A persistent fear of diminishing phosphorus reserves has pushed mining companies to search far and wide for new sources. Companies identified phosphate deposits on the ocean floor and are fighting for mining rights around the world….
From April 2007 to August 2008, the price of phosphate, a necessary ingredient in fertilizer, increased nearly 950 percent, in part due to the idea that phosphate production had peaked and would begin diminishing. Before prices came back down, prospectors had already begun looking for deep sea phosphate reserves around the world.
Since then, the fledgling seabed phosphate industry has found minimal success. While several operations are proposed in the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Mexico rejected attempts at offshore phosphate mining in their territory. This means southern African reserves – created in part by currents carrying phosphate-rich water from Antarctica – are the new center of debate.
Namibia owns identified seabed phosphate deposits, and the country has recently flip-flopped about whether to allow mining. A moratorium was in place since 2013, but in September 2016 the environmental minister made the controversial decision to grant the necessary licenses. Since then, public outcry forced him to set those aside…
Three companies, Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd, Green Flash 257 (Pty) Ltd and Diamond Fields International Ltd., hold prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, roughly 10 percent, of South Africa’s marine exclusive economic zone…[G]reen Flash companies received drill samples, which showed current prices could not sustain seabed phosphate mining.
This leaves Diamond Fields as the only remaining player in South African waters. The company announced in a January 2014 press release that it received a 47,468 square kilometer prospecting right to search for phosphate. According to information the company published summarising its environmental management plan, prospecting would use seismic testing to determine the benthic, or seafloor, geology. If mining commenced, it would take place on the seafloor between 180 and 500 meters below the surface. “A vital and indisputable link exists between phosphate rock and world food supply,” the company stated, citing dwindling phosphate reserves…
Environmentalists argue that not only would phosphate mining destroy marine ecosystems, but it would also lead to continued overuse of fertilizers and associated pollution. They call for increased research into phosphate recapture technology instead of mining.“We could actually be solving the problem of too much phosphates in our water and recapturing it. Instead we’re going to destroy our ocean ecosystems,” John Duncan of WWF-SA said.
The act of offshore mining requires a vessel called a trailing suction hopper dredger, which takes up seafloor sediment and sends waste back into the water column. “It amounts to a kind of bulldozer that operates on the seabed and excavates sediment down to a depth of two or three meters. Where it operates, it’s like opencast mining on land. It removes the entire substrate. That substrate become unavailable to fisheries for many years, if not forever,” Johann Augustyn, secretary of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, said….
Mining opponents also worry offshore mining would negatively impact food production and economic growth. Several thousand subsistence farmers live along South Africa’s coast, and the country’s large-scale fishing industry produces around 600,000 metric tonnes of catch per year.
“[Mining] may lead to large areas becoming deserts for the fish populations that were there. If they don’t die off, they won’t find food there, and they’ll probably migrate out of those areas,” Augustyn said.
South Africa is one of only three African nations – along with Namibia and Seychelles – implementing marine spatial planning. This growing movement toward organised marine economies balances competing uses such as oil exploration, marine protected areas and fisheries….[and mining.]
Excerpts from Mark Olalde, Phosphate Mining Firms Set Sights on Southern Africa’s Sea Floor, IPS, Nov. 17, 2016