Hello Deep Sea, Will You Be Mine(d)?
Hairy, eyeless crabs and a magnetic snail covered in iron plates are just two of the many highly unusual creatures living in the deep sea. Their environment is littered with round rock formations, known as nodules, containing valuable metals such as manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper. This is what is driving interest for deep-sea mining, a concept that has been around for some time. Now, deep-sea mining is facing new possibilities as advancements in technology allow for greater possibilities in this relatively new form of resource extraction. However, this new technology has its share of debate as to whether we should exploit or protect this unexplored environment and its thriving organisms. Deep sea mining involves extracting metals and minerals from areas like the abyssal plains and around hydrothermal vents. Mining interests currently lie almost exclusively in the Pacific Ocean.
Deep-sea mining has the potential to provide the metals needed for renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines. Electric car batteries also require metals that can be extracted from deep-sea mining. These resources could help steer countries towards ‘greener’ economies as they help phase out fossil fuels for alternative energy. However, there are concerns of human health and safety such as mineral leaching and the potential of spills and accidents.
For scientists and researchers, the greatest concern about deep-sea mining is the unknown environmental and ecosystem impacts. In July 2019, the scaly-foot snail was added as endangered in the Red List of Threatened Species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) – the first to be added due to the impacts of deep-sea exploration. The scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum) has only been discovered at three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, two of these vents are licensed mining exploration sites. There is hope that the timing of this listing could help shed light and being awareness to the unique ecosystems and organisms that can be negatively impacted by deep-sea mining.
Currently, there are 30 exploration licenses that have been issued by the ISA (International Seabed Authority), a body within the United Nations. The ISA is responsible for creating a regulatory framework – the mining code – that will provide regulations for the exploitation of deep-sea resources. The draft regulations are expected to be adopted by some time this year. ISA states that they will ensure protection of the marine environment and biodiversity as well as human health and safety. Contractors will be required to conduct environmental impact assessments in accordance with the rules set out by ISA.
We can expect that deep-sea mining will become a bigger player among resource providers in this economy as demand for precious metals grows and technologies continue to advance. Although these metals could help countries adapt to more “environmentally-friendly” energy resources, is it worth exploiting the final frontier of the unexplored deep sea and the amazing biodiversity it may contain?
Written by: Jihyun Kim