The International Seabed Authority is preparing to release an 18-year data set showing the environmental impact of deep seabed mining, allowing researchers to assess the effect of mining operations on the deep seabed ecosystem.
Mining interests are racing to extract minerals from the ocean bottom that would be used in batteries for electric vehicles but advocates warn that in addition to its effect on the deep seabed ecosystem, mining could have the counterproductive effect of increasing global warming by releasing carbon stored in deep sea sediments.
Once thought too expensive and too difficult, commercial scale mining of the deep sea is poised to become a reality as early as 2019. But scientists warn reaching rare minerals on and under the sea floor could cause irreversible damage to an environment that is still poorly understood.
Researchers have discovered previously unknown species of sea life on the deep seabed floor, prompting concerns about how they will be impacted by the rush to mine the seabed for cobalt, manganese and other elements for use in technologies such as smartphones and electric cars.
Our growing demand for resources has prompted companies to turn to mining in the depths of the oceans. With help from robots, a team of German scientists is racing to map the potential environmental damage.
Biodiversity losses from deep-sea mining are unavoidable and possibly irrevocable, an international team of 15 marine scientists, resource economists and legal scholars argue in a letter published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.
A new gold rush is targeting rich ores on the ocean floor containing valuable metals needed for smartphones and green technologies, but also hosting exotic ecosystems, raising questions about whether deep seabed mining is really an ecologic alternative to land-based mining.D
The world economy, still suffering from the financial crisis, is currently experiencing increasing commodity prices. Industrial associations and governments are monitoring patterns of supply and demand, not only for standard minerals like iron, but also for high-value metals (e.g., nickel, copper, titanium, gold) and rare earth elements (REE) like yttrium, indium, gallium, neodymium, and germanium (Kato et al. 2011) which are important for semi-conductors, photovoltaics, lasers, liquid crystal displays, fiber- optic cables, and other high-tech products used in both civilian and military applica- tions. The demand for raw materials is expected to double in the next 25 years. The EU has identified a list of 14 out of 41 critical raw materials2 which are irreplaceable in key industries. The supply risk is due to the fact that a high share of production comes from China,3 Russia, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil. This production concentration cannot easily be substituted for or augmented by other sources. The political–economic stability of some of the producing states is questionable and, in the case of Congo, nearing collapse. The list of failing states will grow where humanitarian and environmental risks may get completely out of control. The risks for the supply chains are self-evident: old and newly industrialized states are competing over prices and access rights to the remaining raw materials, while the low-hanging fruits have been picked. As a consequence, interest in marine mineral resources is growing again. With only 29% of the world's surface being land and 71% being sea, there is every reason to believe that terrestrial minerals occur in deposits on and in the seabed, as well. The Pacific Ocean alone is larger than all land masses on earth.
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Jenisch, Uwe K. "Old laws for new risks at sea: mineral resources, climate change, sea lanes, and cables." WMU Journal of Maritime Affairs. Vol. 11. (2012): 169-185. [ More (4 quotes) ]
Deep seabed mining could have serious impacts on the ocean environment and the future livelihoods and wellbeing of coastal communities. Only 3% of the oceans are protected and less than 1% of the high seas7, making them some of the least protected places on Earth. The emerging threat of seabed mining is an urgent wake-up call: the world’s governments must act now to protect the high seas, including by creating a global network of marine reserves8 that will be crucial sanctuaries at sea for marine life and the ecosystems which we all rely on for our survival. An international, multi-sector approach to management and protection is needed, if we are to ensure the health and sustainable use of our oceans.
The remote deep and open oceans host a major part of the world’s biodiversity, and are vital for our survival on Earth.9 The deep sea plays an important role in regulating planetary processes, including regulation of temperature and greenhouse gases.10 It supports ocean life by cycling nutrients and providing habitat for a staggering array of species.
Deep-sea communities live in relative silence, and in the dark. Studies have shown that deep-sea fish communicate at low sound frequencies26, and are sensitive to acoustic changes to sense food falls – the fall of organic matter that provides an important source of nutrients to the deep sea27. Whales rely on sound for communication and navigation, and when encountering increased noise, change their vocalisation patterns and behaviour, and move away to new areas.28 Studies show that baleen whales experience chronic stress when exposed to increased shipping noise.29 Low-frequency mining noise could travel far from the mining site, with one estimate suggesting that noise from the Nautilus operation near Papua New Guinea could travel up to 600km from the site.30 This could have negative impacts on deep diving whales in the area.
Mining will also introduce bright light into an environment that, but for bioluminescence, is constantly dark, impacting species that are adapted to these conditions, such as deep-sea vent shrimp, which have been shown to be blinded by the lights used by researchers.31
The seabed and deep sea is the last frontier on Earth, the vast majority of it unexplored by humans. We have more detailed maps of Mars than we have of the seafloor. Some deep-sea communities, such as those found on and around hydrothermal vents, are barely understood. First discovered in 1977, these hydrothermal vents are like underwater hot springs, spouting out clouds of metal sulphides from within the Earth. As the hot clouds cool and solidify, they create towering chimneys, known as “black smokers”. The organisms that live there are like nothing else on Earth, as they draw their energy not from the sun but from the chemicals gushing from the vents. These thriving communities live in an extreme environment – one that is dark, deep (up to 5,000m depth), hot (up to 400°C), and usually strongly acidic, yet hosts an extraordinary array of life.33 Over 700 vent species have been discovered, and due to factors such as geographical isolation, many are unique to their particular regions or even locations. Species include giant tube worms, crabs, shrimps and fish.34 On average, two new species were discovered every month for the 25 years up to 200235, and we’ve still barely scratched the surface.
The deep sea is also the largest reservoir of marine genetic resources, and is of major interest to pharmaceutical companies, a number of which already hold patents for products discovered in the deep.36 Enzymes from hydrothermal vent species are estimated to have an annual commercial value of $150m US dollars.37 Despite their intrinsic ecological and scientific value and their potential benefit to humankind, deep seabed mining could destroy these genetic resources before they are fully understood or even discovered38 – resources that could, for example, hold cures for diseases such as cancer.
Seabed mining could cause fish mortality, due to habitat loss and a decline in food sources. For example, phosphate extraction proposed in shallow water near Namibia is expected to impact fish populations through habitat and food source removal, with mining operations set to take place within migratory routes and spawning grounds.39
Similarly, within the deep sea, mineral deposits often occur in habitats that support important and diverse fish populations. For example, cobalt-rich crusts are often located on the flanks and summits of seamounts, underwater mountains that host a great abundance of species. These include slow-growing fish species such as orange roughy, grenadiers and redfish, the status of which – in the cases where data exist – is generally considered already overexploited or depleted by deep-sea fishing.40 In cases where seamounts have been severely destroyed by bottom trawling, there has been no sign of recovery of large bottom-dwelling fauna five years after trawling stopped, highlighting the vulnerability of these communities.41 Research suggests that it will take many decades or more for seamount communities to recover from such trawling.42 Greenpeace has been calling for a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling to stop the potentially irreversible impacts of this destructive fishing practice on sensitive deep-sea habitats and species. The impacts of mining in these areas would be even more devastating to the already threatened fragile ecosystems of the deep ocean.
As the production of electrical products has increased, so has the volume of waste electronic and electrical equipment (e-waste), which is now considered the fastest growing waste stream in the world.51 With land-based resources of certain metals becoming scarce, and seabed mining posing such a significant environmental risk, it is crucial that e-waste is recycled responsibly, to extract valuable materials from discarded products such as mobile phones and laptops rather than disposing of them in landfills.52 For example, a mobile phone at the end of its lifespan can be responsibly recycled in order to recover materials – such as gold, copper and silver – that were used to build it.
Responsible e-waste recycling can be a more efficient way to source metal than mining virgin ore, and can provide larger volumes of metal than virgin stocks.53 Some experts claim that electronic waste now contains precious metal “deposits” 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground.54 The responsible recycling of minerals would also create jobs and business opportunities.55
Rather than turning to the seabed for future sources of minerals, end-user industries should invest in designing products that minimise the use of these minerals and have a longer life, as well as take responsibility for reusing and recycling initiatives, including effective take-back schemes for their own products.
Indeed, at a summit on Deep-Sea Mining in London two months ago Mark Brown, Minister of Minerals and Natural Resources of the Cook Islands, announced that the Cook Islands is embracing deep-sea mining as a pathway to multiply the country’s gross domestic product by up to 100 fold, as they assessed that the Cook Islands' 2 million Km2 exclusive economic zone contains 10 billion tons of manganese nodules, which contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals used in electronics. Negotiations are under way between the Cook Islands and companies in the UK, China, Korea, Japan and Norway, towards granting the first tenders within a year.
These facts suggest that we may soon face and underwater gold rush, but in most citizen’s minds deep-sea mining is still something for sci-fic movies. Much to the contrary, the technology for deep-sea mining is not something of the future but it is largely existing. A deep-sea mining operation consists of a mining support platform or vessel; a launch and recovery system; a crawler with a mining head, centrifugal pump and vertical transport system; and electrical, control, instrumentation and visualization systems. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Soil Machine Dynamics, IHC Mining and Bauer or Nautilus Minerals are developing vehicles for deep-sea mining, pledging they are in the position to readily develop techniques to operate down to 5,000 metre depth. Indeed, the submarine vehicles required are already in existence and their operations are described in compelling animations.
Coral reefs, mangroves, and estuaries are now considered "among the most highly diverse, integrated and productive of the earth's ecosystems."19 An estimated 175 billion dry metric tons of minable manganese nodules, containing as many as 30 elements, including manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt, cover about 15 percent of the deep seabed.20 If correct, these reserves far exceed known land deposits.21 Yet initial estimates tended to overestimate not the mineral wealth, nor necessarily the ability of technology to mine it, but the economic feasibility of such endeavors. Mining engineer John Mero predicted in 1965 that by 1985 operations would be processing 50 million tons of nodules annually.22 However, those corporations that had seabed mining technology also had substantial invested interest in the continuing profitability of land-based minerals. Thus, mining of the seabed has not yet become a growth industry. Nevertheless, this vast potential wealth, located on the 70 percent of the earth's surface covered by the oceans,23 is the impetus for both the attempt to privatize the ocean and the resistance to such an enclosure.
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Thompson, Carol B. "International Law of the Sea/Seed: Public Domain versus Private Commodity." Natural Resources Journal. Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer 2004): 841-866. [ More (6 quotes) ]
Until a decade ago, the United States was 100 percent self-reliant for rare earth production, with domestic companies producing enough to supply U.S. manufacturers. Over time, however, U.S. production was halted as it became economically and environmentally cost prohibitive.
Companies in various countries – including the United States – are looking at reopening closed mines and developing new deposits, but these efforts could take a number of years to fully come on line.
The deep seabed offers a new opportunity for the United States to gain steady access to these vital rare earth minerals. Polymetallic nodules are located on the deep ocean floor. These nodules typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals. However, U.S. companies cannot actively pursue claims in the areas where these nodules are dense unless the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The Law of the Sea Convention provides the only internationally recognized legal regime for extracting mineral resources from the ocean floor in the deep seabed, an area over which no country has sovereign rights. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) develops the rules, regulations and procedures relating to the deep seabed. The Convention guarantees the United States, and only the United States, a permanent seat on the decision-making Council of the ISA – with an effective veto over decisions impacting U.S. interests.
The development of deep seabed claims is incredibly expensive. Companies in the U.S. are reluctant to invest heavily in deep seabed mining because of the risk that their activities would not withstand a legal challenge since the U.S. is not a party to the Convention. Conversely, foreign companies, because their governments have joined the Convention, have access to the international bodies that grant the legal claims to operate in the deep seabed area. The U.S. cannot represent the interests of its companies in those bodies.
Lockheed Martin, for example, has two deep seabed claims that pre-date the Law of the Sea Convention. It has continued to extend its licenses through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These claims will be instantly recognized by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) if the U.S. joins the Convention. However, without the U.S. becoming a party to the Convention, Lockheed Martin is unable to secure U.S. sponsorship of these claims at the ISA.