Tag Archives: economics of mining deep seabed

A Brand New World: Mapping the Ocean Floor

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

The Diversity of Submarine Mountains

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

Who Owns the Riches of the Melting North Pole

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.

The Rio Grande Rise, Brazil

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)

Lomonosov Ridge, Amerasian Basin

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 make the 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

Gummy Squirrels v. Cobalt: 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

Sucking the Life out of Deep Sea

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

The Expoitation of Seabed

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

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