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Deep Sea Mining: An Overview - Hande Mert

Among metal-rich nodules of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a sea anemone–like cnidarian trails 2-meter tentacles. Diva Amon & Craig Smith

The demand for precious minerals and metals is increasing day by day. The decrease in land-based resources has led manufacturers and the metal industry to the resurgence of interest in different types of resources that can replace the traditional ones. Therefore, engineers have started to investigate the wonders of deep-sea.

The massive amounts of polymetallic nodules, copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt compounds, manganese, sulfides around hydrothermal vents, and also the idea of extracting methane from gas hydrates created an interest in potential seabed mining projects. Because these rich metal contents are essential for many industries, including mining, electronics, and technology. But there are no deep-scale mining operations, and only shallow seabed operations are active. However, the exploration and research process of deep-sea resources are still happening. Sixteen mining companies have explored the seabed for mineral content research. The main reason why there are no significant ongoing operations is the environmental issues that deep-sea mining would cause. The mining industry and environmentalists have different opinions about this subject.

According to a report by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada, the damage that seabed mining, in other words, polymetallic nodule mining, would cause is inevitable. The ecosystems, biodiversity, and fisheries around targeted areas for the operations are under a serious threat. Because nodules are natural harbors to lots of brittle living organisms. That's why the correct approach here must be precautionary.

A Canadian mining company, Nautilus Minerals Inc., did an exploratory study in the sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2007. The drill holes' penetration was 1,600 meters, and it was very near to a hydrothermal vent. It was a good place for the company to search for gold, silver, copper, and zinc. But the whole process disturbed the unique sea life. Unfortunately, the exploration stage went on and on in the following years. These bad influences resulted in campaigns against seabed mining operations. Residents said their community experienced serious impacts when the company began exploring the seabed. They were worried about the whole mining operations' reliability because there were not any examples or project reports around the world to follow bothered them. They also pointed out the ground conditions of the seabed of Papua New Guinea. The active undersea volcano was and still is a threat to both undersea life and Papua New Guinea residents. Overall the whole operation has had a remarkable negative effect on the nation's economy. Because Nautilus had gone bankrupt before the actual process of extracting minerals began, and a vast depth was left on the Papua New Guinea government because they invested in the project in the first place.

Deep-Sea Mining Campaign published a report in May 20201 and remarkably mentioned the studies and negative aspects that happened in Papua New Guinea. But this report also examines another worthy form of polymetallic nodule called potato-sized rock accretions on the seabed, which contains nickel, copper, manganese, and nickel. According to the report, a wide-ranging aggregation occurs in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which is 4.5 million square kilometers, including Hawaii and Mexico in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The report analyses the possible negative impacts on many different dimensions like fisheries, ecosystems, biodiversity, unknown deep-sea species and habitats, and social and economic. It also highlights the lack of knowledge about the process, which could end with a catastrophe.

"The reason we decided it was urgent to put this report out is that… the International Seabed Authority is under a lot of pressure to get the regulations finalized that would allow the mining to start," Catherine Coumans, one of the report's editors and the Asia-Pacific program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, told Mongabay. "The mining could start within the next couple of years."

On the other hand, mining companies point out that deep-sea mining is less harmless than land mining; polymetallic nodule usage is obligatory to provide the needed materials for renewable energy technologies. And they also add they can benefit from the social and economic standards that Pacific island countries have, which includes other authorities into the subject.

"Deep-sea mining is a cross-cutting topic that could affect both progress on climate action as well as the preservation of biodiversity and is connected with the transition to a circular economy," Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum, said in a media statement.

To be able to analyze every possible outcome, further years are critical. The knowledge and the mistakes of the traditional mining methods and the other industries (like oil, nuclear power generation ) must guide any potential mining project. Also, new technologies must be implemented, and the best investment options must be considered carefully to determine the actual environmental and social impacts of deep-sea mining because that decision will designate whether a project is sustainable or not.


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