Deep-Sea Mining Is Closer Than You Think
Late last year, hydrothermal vents were discovered around Antarctica, carpeted with thousands of ghost-white yeti crabs. In January, a different expedition identified what may be the hottest hydrothermal vents on Earth along the Mid-Cayman Rise, where amagmatic spreading allows heat from the mantle to reach the surface of the oceanic crust. And in April, deep-sea researchers discovered an exotic new type of underwater volcano – one made of rhyolite rock rather than basalt, which could form the basis for a unique biological community.
The exploratory investigation of the deep ocean is clearly a vibrant and quickly developing line of work, but even as scientists continue to catalog the full range of biological and geological diversity, mining companies are ramping up plans to extract minerals from deep-sea deposits.
Nautilus Minerals Inc. was just weeks away from starting production near the Solwara 1 hydrothermal vents off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where metal-rich fluids spew into the ocean and form mineral deposits. A financial dispute with the government over each partner’s equity stake has postponed the endeavor.
Many environmentalists, skeptical of the project’s environmental impact statement, were assuaged by the news, but the financial bickering may only be delaying the inevitable as an international field of resource-hungry competitors jockeys for position. India has dialed in on a portion of the Central Indian Ocean Basin, a Saudi-Sudanese joint venture is preparing for Red Sea mining, and Germany has prioritized technology development for deployment around the world.
Deep-sea mining is poised as a major growth industry over the next decade, as large developing-world populations drive consumer demand for metal-containing products, climate change makes previously inaccessible regions like the Arctic Ocean seabed attainable, and improved extraction technologies turn previously uneconomical rock into paydirt.
Cindy Van Dover is a Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke University and a leading voice in the development of policy and management strategies for deep-sea extraction activities. Van Dover has studied the ecology of hydrothermal vents for years, and she takes a measured, pragmatic approach to the coming industrialization of her study sites. If mining is going to happen – a event that the more strident faction of the environmental movement will no doubt contest – “we need to work with industry to make sure we do it right,” says Van Dover.
One place for scientists to take an active role is in communicating the full value of deep-sea communities. “Because it is out of sight and outside the daily experience of most people,” explains Van Dover, “it is hard for the general public to value the deep-sea environment. Getting more and better numbers on the goods and services provided by deep-sea ecosystems could really be useful.”
Indeed, if done properly, the industrialization of the deep-sea could actually be a boon to science. Responsible use of these resources – and to be clear, our metals must come from somewhere – would require that we understand the full ecological impact on hydrothermally derived systems. Characterization expeditions in advance of mining operations could vastly expand our knowledge of certain applied parameters such as mineral deposition rates and “how to maintain critical population levels to ensure the survival of species that naturally occur in a region,” as Van Dover puts it.
Until the legal framework of mining in international waters catches up to the ready-to-dig reality, cooperative participation from scientists may be the best way to preserve the most fragile, irreplaceable aspects of deep-sea ecosystems.
Recent developments have highlighted the rapidly moving nature of this expanding frontier, and all parties – scientists, miners, and conservationists – will need to keep up. “Deep-sea conservation is something I never thought I’d have to deal with in my career,” admits Van Dover. “I assumed human activities and impacts in the deep sea were decades, if not centuries into the future.”