Mining the Deep Ocean : Does catastrophe lie ahead?

Following recent publicity in the February 2019 edition of the newsletter “The Navigator” published by that the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority is preparing regulations for the issuing of exploration licences (as opposed to exploitation licences) on the deep ocean seabed for the extraction of minerals, Marinet has written a Briefing Paper on this subject. We provide here the introduction to the Marinet Briefing Paper.

“Probably the largest pristine global natural habitat, not yet seriously violated by mankind, exists in the deep ocean and on its seabed.

The deep ocean has been described by the United Nations’ First World Ocean Assessment 2015 as a “vast realm which constitutes the largest source of species and ecosystem diversity on Earth, supporting ecosystem processes necessary for our planet’s natural systems to function.”

At a time of planetary crisis generated by a wide range of factors, amongst which are the consequences of acidification and warming of the ocean due to CO2 emissions leading to an incipient sixth mass extinction of species, there can scarcely be a part of our planet in more urgent need of protection than the deep ocean in order to ensure that the outcome of this crisis is not terminal for our species and life more generally.

Despite this there are now active proposals to mine the deep ocean’s seabed, at a depth of between 4000 and 6000 metres, for minerals.

The United Nations has established an International Seabed Authority with instructions to develop regulations by 2020 so that ocean seabed mining will be “open for business”. This means developing regulations to allow seabed mining on “behalf of mankind as a whole” whereby exploration licences can become operative as a precursor to actual mining licences.

The World Ocean Institute reports (2019) that there are currently 29 licences issued to explore for deep sea minerals, covering 1.5 million km2 of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. 19 of these exploration licences are in the Pacific Ocean and 15 of these are sited in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone which is located 1000 miles west of Mexico and extends 4500 miles in the direction of Hawaii. We report in the Briefing Paper on one of the current EIAs for exploration in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone.

These prospective seabed mining areas are located along fracture zones on the seabed where geological tectonic plates meet, causing volcanic upwellings in the form of seamounts along with associated seabed plains. The World Ocean Institute reports (2018) that in these plains there are extensive fields of potato-sized polymetallic nodules (PMN) which form in the high-pressure crucible of the deep, more or less like a pearl, lying naked on the ocean floor so that no drilling, only harvesting, is required for their removal. The nodules are made of manganese (c.30%), along with cobalt, copper and nickel (c.5%) with traces of gold, silver, lithium, speciality metals (tellurium) and rare earths (neodymium, dysprosium) — all highly attractive to mining companies.

The World Ocean Institute’s 2018 report argues that because the deep seabed and its mineral resources are regarded in International law (UNCLOS) as “the common heritage of mankind” the principles governing use of these areas are, first, to maintain the environmental and ecological health of these areas and, second, to ensure economic equity in the use of these areas because all states communally own these areas beyond national jurisdiction and this mineral resource is potentially of trillion dollar value.

The deep ocean is a unique world of no sunlight and total darkness, freezing cold, great pressure and silence. Life has evolved there in very exceptional circumstances and it has essentially been undisturbed since the very beginning. Indeed some scientists believe the deep ocean may hold the secret as to how life on the planet first began.

Disturbance by mining will introduce continuous noise and light into this world and so is likely have a profound impact. In addition, mining will involve hoovering up the top 15 cm of the silt-like ooze and layer of minerals which lie on the seabed, then discharging the silt back into the water column where it will travel as a plume on the ocean current, slowly settling out over an extended area and smothering the adjacent seabed and creatures living there. The proposed mining areas are governed by deep ocean currents moving anywhere between 2 cm per second (0.072 km per hour) and 8 cm per second (0.288 km per hour, i.e. potentially travelling 6.912 km in one day).

An informative discussion of these issues can be heard on BBC Scotland where the need for deep ocean seabed mining is debated. The discussion considers whether there are existing adequate reserves of these seabed metals on land, along with their recycling (see Save The High Seas Organisation, 2016) and the fear of a severe adverse impact upon this exceptional, pristine and almost totally unexplored realm of ocean life.

There are profound questions to be asked and answered.

Who benefits? Is mankind’s global economic model, which demands such mining, actually sustainable?

Marinet has been following the track record of seabed mining over many years in UK coastal waters at depths of 40 metres or less. It is very poor, see here and here.

Therefore is it a realistic expectation that mining companies can do better in the deep ocean at a depth of 4000 metres and more, where the consequences are wholly unknown?

If the answers to these questions are uncertain or negative, then are we about to create a catastrophe from which the deep ocean will never recover?”


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