Tag Archives: polymetallic nodules

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

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

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: