Image credit: NOAA via Fauna & Flora

Research Confirms Risks Of Deep Sea Mining Are Greater Than The Rewards

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For thoughtful people like Mark Z. Jacobson and Tony Seba, the secret to controlling rising global temperatures is to electrify everything and use renewables to supply the electricity needed to operate all those electric cars, heat pumps, water heaters, and industrial processes. That way, we can stop extracting, transporting, refining, and burning the fossil fuels that are causing the rise in global temperatures in the first place. But that will require finding new sources of copper, cobalt, aluminum, magnesium, and the other minerals needed to manufacture all those electrical devices. Some people think those minerals can be found under the world’s oceans and are just waiting to be harvested. To them, deep sea mining is the new, new thing and they can’t wait to get started.

In 2020, Fauna & Flora International released a report detailing the dangers associated with deep sea mining, most of them based on the fact that we know next to nothing about the ocean floor. We don’t know what lives there or how those organisms fit into the entirety of the ecosystems that support life on Earth. Here is the foreword to that report written by Sir David Attenborough:

“The depths of our oceans remain largely unexplored, but humankind’s first tentative ventures into the blue abyss have revealed a hidden world full of wonders, where life thrives under great barometric pressure and far from the light of the sun. The fact that life exists at all in such unforgiving conditions, drawing energy from the chemicals expelled from the earth’s core and locking away carbon from our atmosphere, is one of the world’s uncelebrated marvels. What is more, we are now beginning to appreciate the extent to which life in the deep sea also affects the health of the planetary systems on which we all depend.

“The fate of the deep sea and the fate of our planet are intimately intertwined. That we should be considering the destruction of these places and the multitude of species they support — before we have even understood them and the role they play in the health of our planet — is beyond reason. This report by Fauna & Flora International highlights crucial evidence about the importance vof the deep sea for the global climate and the proper functioning of ocean habitats. The rush to mine this pristine and unexplored environment risks creating terrible impacts that cannot be reversed. We need to be guided by v science when faced with decisions of such great environmental consequence.”

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The Latest Deep Sea Mining Research

That report from 2020 has now been updated to include newly discovered evidence that militates against deep sea mining. The news isn’t good. Fauna & Flora says in its latest report that “scientific attention has increased rapidly, with many new studies published on deep sea environments, the functions and services they provide for humanity, and the potential implications of deep seabed mining for life in the deep ocean. These recent studies strongly accentuate the potential risks of deep seabed mining and therefore that it remains premature for deep seabed mining to proceed at the current time and, in the absence of any suitable, proven impact-avoidance or mitigation techniques, deep seabed mining should be avoided entirely (emphasis added).”

But that’s not what’s happening. Unbeknownst to most of us (including myself), there is an International Seabed Authority, headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. It is an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is the organization through which parties to UNCLOS organize and control all mineral resources related activities in the Area for the benefit of humankind as a whole. In so doing, ISA has the mandate to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep seabed related activities. “The Area” is any part of the ocean that is not within the territorial waters of any nation, which is to say virtually all of it.

The problem, says Fauna & Flora, is that several nations are pushing the ISA to approve deep sea mining activities. In its latest report, it says the scientific studies conducted over the past three years demonstrate that deep seabed mining will inevitably result in the loss of deep sea biodiversity, with implications for associated ecosystem functions and services, and that, once lost, biodiversity will be impossible to restore. They also present compelling evidence that deep seabed mining, through disturbance of marine sediment carbon stores and disruption of carbon cycling and storage processes, could contribute to the climate crisis.

Known Unknowns

Crucially, the report emphasizes how little is still known about the diversity and complexity that exists in the deep sea, and the many new species that are yet to be discovered. Sophie Benbow, Director of Marine Studies for Fauna & Flora, says, “We know less about the deep sea than any other place on the planet; over 75% of the seafloor still remains unmapped and less than 1% of the deep ocean has been explored. What we do know, however, is that the ocean plays a critical role in the basic functioning of our planet and protecting its delicate ecosystem is, therefore, not just critical for marine biodiversity, but for all life of earth.”

“The predicted consequences and huge uncertainties associated with deep-seabed mining must not be ignored. Bold decisions are now required to put ocean health and the benefits of the deep sea for all humankind front and center. Once initiated, deep-seabed mining and its effects may be impossible to stop.”

“It has become increasingly clear in the last couple of years that, apart from other dangers, deep-sea mining poses a particular threat to the climate,” Catherine Weller, Fauna & Flora’s director of global policy, told The Guardian. “The deep sea holds vast reservoirs of carbon which could be completely disrupted by mining on the scale being proposed and exacerbate the global crisis we are experiencing through rising greenhouse gas levels.”

Recent research has also emphasized that our knowledge and understanding of biodiversity in the ocean is woefully incomplete. “Each time an expedition is launched to collect species, we find that between 70% and 90% of them are new to science,” said Benbow. “It is not just new species, but whole genera of plants and creatures about which we had previously known nothing.”

deep sea mining
Credit: Fauna & Flora

Deep Sea Mining Initiatives

There are believed to be trillions of nodules of manganese, nickel, and cobalt just laying about on the ocean floor waiting to be harvested. These metals are critical to the manufacture of electric cars, wind turbines, and other devices that will be needed to replace the primary sources of carbon dioxide emissions today. As a result, mining companies now want to dredge those nodules up in vast quantities using robot rovers — much like the roomba that cleans the floors in our homes — that would trundle over the ocean floor, sucking up nodules and pumping them to ships floating high above. Those mining operations would devastate our already stressed oceans, destroy their delicate ecosystems, and send plumes of sediments laced with toxic metals spiraling upwards to poison marine food chains, marine biologists claim.

Naturally, mining companies defend their plans by saying mining for mineral on land is even more damaging to the planet’s stressed ecosystems. If we focus all our efforts on dig up cobalt, nickel, and manganese on land, that will be worse for the environment that deep sea mining. That’s why we need to mine the oceans, they argue.

Catherine Weller is having none of it. “These companies are presenting deep sea mining as a new frontier but they really mean it to be an additional frontier. None of these companies is suggesting that if we started mining the deep seabed then they would stop mining on land. We would just be adding to our woes.”

Ocean experts are concerned about the prospects of deep sea mining operations beginning in the near future, following the decision of the Pacific Island state of Nauru to accelerate exploitation of the sea bed. In June 2021, it notified the International Seabed Authority of its intention to sponsor an exploitation application for nodule mining in the Pacific.

That notification triggered a “two year rule” — a legal provision which creates a countdown for the ISA to adopt its first set of exploitation regulations for deep seabed mining and could result in the approval for such mining this year. Discussions among the 167 member states of the ISA are now under way. “This is a critical year,” said Weller. “The newly agreed UN High Sea treaty signifies a clear global recognition of the importance of ocean conservation but collaborative efforts are still needed to keep the brakes on deep-sea mining.”

The Takeaway

We have already destroyed large portions of the Earth’s land mass to extract the minerals needed to sustain our high tech lifestyle. That has led to rising global temperatures and substantial shifts in our climate. Perhaps at some point, human beings will come to recognize that consuming everything our planet has to offer is a recipe for disaster. We are on the road to a final cataclysm that may consume us all.

Instead of digging up more stuff, perhaps we should focus on reusing what we already have. There are those who ardently believe we as a species have a license from some Higher Power to destroy the Earth for our own comfort and convenience. But if there is indeed such a Higher Power, how likely is that such a super-intelligence would want us to destroy the only planet we will ever have?

If we don’t develop a circular economy that stops wasting precious natural resources, we are not a species, we are a virus, a plague upon the Earth. Surely that can’t be what our Higher Power has in mind, can it? We need to learn to live with sensible limits on our consumption. Otherwise, all is lost.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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