Deep Sea Mining – Mining the Depths

2021-12-17

 |  Science & The Environment

We humans think we know everything, but is that really true? You would be surprised to know that we have only discovered 0.001% of the ocean! Undertaking an activity in the already unknown ocean is also something we don’t know much about. One such activity is deep sea mining. Mining the deep sea is needed for a green revolution – but at what cost? 

What is Deep Sea Mining?

Deep sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m. 

Why is Deep-Sea Mining required?

Deep sea mining may be required for a green revolution. But, like all other things around us, it has its pros and cons. The deep sea contains many resources for mining, including silver, gold, copper, manganese, nickel, cobalt, and zinc. These minerals are found in various forms on the seafloor, including sulfide deposits, manganese crusts and polymetallic nodules. Polymetallic nodules are potato-sized clumps loaded with these minerals. These nodules are rich in cobalt, nickel and manganese which are required for our lithium-ion batteries. 

Making lithium-ion batteries is necessary for a green revolution. We need these batteries for things like charging electric cars, technology or even storage for future use. But getting the minerals used to make these batteries is not easy. “Between us and the nodules, there is a literal ocean.” – Julian Huguet. These minerals are found on the seabed, abyssal plains and near hydrothermal vents. Some 4,000 metres below the ocean surface, the abyssal plains of the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) holds trillions of polymetallic nodules and is a hot target for mining industries. 

We have seen how deep-sea mining is beneficial for the environment. However, it has its negative side: global warming. As we all know, global warming is increasing by the minute and it can have many fatal consequences including a rising sea level, stronger hurricanes, an ice-free Arctic, changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts, heat waves, etc. However, once the deep sea mining operations go mainstream, there could be no limit to the consequences. 

Fortunately, when there is a problem, there is a solution. The key to a green revolution is not just deep sea mining but finding alternatives! So far, we have invented hydroelectric dams, solar powered panels, windmills, etc. But that won’t be enough to create a green revolution.

The International Seabed Authority 

What is it? The International Seabed Authority (or the ISA), is a UN authority in charge of keeping the mining operations on the sea bed under control. This refers to the whole set of rules, regulations and procedures issued by the ISA to regulate investigation, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed areas such as the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which is of particular interest. In this area alone, the nodules are known to contain more nickel and cobalt than all land based sources combined! All big operations normally have a big expense; these expenses help the operation to gather the appropriate tools and machinery needed for the job. Due to the immense pressure in the deep sea, the machinery cost is immensely high. The machines have to be built to undergo the high pressure level so deep in the ocean and be able to perform the task safely for the operation to go as planned. 

The Mining Dilemma

Deciding whether to mine the deep sea or not is not an easy decision. It’s an uncomfortable dilemma. Mining land comes with a long list of human rights abuses as well as a long list of environmental concerns. But unfortunately, the consequences of mining the deep sea are unknown. Some scientists believe the effects could be catastrophic. Are we willing to risk the Earth? But then, again, what will it take to achieve this green revolution? Before we take action, we must be cognizant of the effects; we must know enough of the facts before taking a final decision. 

Potential Consequences 

As much as deep sea mining will help us achieve a green revolution, we have to be aware of some potential consequences. For example, risking unknown species. Scientists are concerned about the fact that we could lose species before we even knew they exist. Almost every time you dive under to explore, a new species is discovered. There are also many other concerns such as impact on the atmosphere and risking potential medical properties in deep sea life and environments. 

Deep sea mining is a proud innovation of our species but it’s important to understand that it needs a lot more research and knowledge before we bring it mainstream. It may be beneficial to create a green revolution but they should not begin mainstream operations without  government legislation to protect and carefully operate on the seafloor. What do you think? Should we operate mainstream? If yes, then at what cost?

Resources: