While the idea of mining for gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and other metals on the ocean floor has been discussed for decades, technological developments have now made it feasible to undertake such deep-sea mining on an extensive scale. There is plenty of demand for such metals and there are plenty of them: seven billion tons of manganese, 340 million tons of nickel, 290 million tons of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt. But the price of the disruption that deep-sea mining will cause to marine life could be huge, as scientists say to the BBC.
The prospect of deep sea mining on an industrial-level scale and of a potential “gold rush” for the riches of the ocean floor could occur in the next few years. The United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) recently published a technical study regarding the management of mining for “nodules,” small rocks rich with minerals, from the seabed. The ISA oversees deep sea mining; the study says that companies (state-owned and private) could start applying for licenses as early as 2016.
The ISA study also acknowledges that deep-sea mining will cause “inevitable environmental damage.” Paul Tyler of the National Oceanography Centre underscores the potential threat to the ocean floor’s ecosystem:
“If you wipe out that area by mining, those animals have to do one of two things: they disperse and colonise another hydrothermal vent somewhere or they die.
“And what happens when they die is that the vent will become biologically extinct.”
Euan Harvey of the University of Western Australia in Crawley tells The New Scientist that companies should first perform “controlled experimental mining” to see how the seabed recovers from it. Joanna Parr of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization also notes that the mining could actually change the flow of marine currents by altering ocean topography.
Charitha Pattiaratchi of the University of Western Australia suggests that, based on some research, the deep seabed’s organisms might be able to recover from the disruptions of mining. Such organism are, he says, very “rugged, having evolved under high pressure with no light, and in sediment that is regularly disturbed by violent storms.”
Who Owns the Deep Sea?
Whatever the extent of disruption to seabed’s environment, the prospect of extensive mining of the ocean floor raises the issue of who indeed owns the deep sea. Another biologist, Jon Copley of the University of Southampton, points out that we do not own the deep sea “in the sense that we can do what we like with it” and instead “share responsibility for its stewardship.”
The ISA was indeed set up with this notion of stewardship in mind. Under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ISA is to “encourage and manage seabed mining for the wider benefit of humanity” and specifically to share the profits with developing countries. But as the BBC underscores, the ISA is now starting to entangle itself with the commercial aspects of deep sea mining as it is “taking the significant step of moving from simply handling bids for mineral exploration to considering how to license the first real mining operations and how to share the proceeds.”
In fact, the ISA has already issued 17 licenses to companies to prospect for minerals in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and plans to grant another seven more. Notably, a subsidiary of the American defense company Lockheed Martin, UK Seabed Resources, is one of the recent recipients of a license to prospect.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the ISA juggles managing licenses to mine the deep sea while ensuring that developing countries also benefit and that the ocean floor’s ecosystem is not irrevocably harmed. As Copley says, “We don’t have a good track record of achieving balance anywhere else — think of the buffalo and the rainforest — so the question is, can we get it right?”
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