Deep sea mining: Exploring the potential of excavating the seabed?

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Deep sea mining: Exploring the potential of excavating the seabed?

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Deep sea mining: Exploring the potential of excavating the seabed?

Subheading text
Nations attempt to develop standardized regulations that would “safely” mine the seabed, but scientists warn that there are still too many unknowns.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • May 3, 2023

    The largely unexplored seabed is a rich source of minerals like manganese, copper, cobalt, and nickel. As island nations and mining companies scramble to develop the technology for deep sea mining, scientists emphasize that there's insufficient information to support excavating seabeds. Any disturbance to the seafloor could have significant and long-lasting impacts on the marine environment.

    Deep sea mining context

    The deep sea range, about 200 to 6,000 meters below sea level, is one of the last unexplored frontiers on Earth. It covers over half of the planet's surface and contains many life forms and geological features, including underwater mountains, canyons, and trenches. According to marine conservationists, less than 1 percent of the deep-sea floor has been explored by the human eye or cameras. The deep sea is also a treasure trove of valuable minerals essential to modern technologies, such as electric vehicle (EV) batteries and renewable energy systems.

    Despite warnings from marine conservationists on the uncertainty of deep-sea mining, the Pacific island nation of Nauru, together with Canada-based mining company The Metals Company (TMC), has approached the United Nations (UN)-backed International Seabed Authority (ISA) to develop regulations for seabed mining. Nauru and TMC are seeking to mine polymetallic nodules, which are potato-sized mineral rocks with high metal concentrations. In July 2021, they triggered the two-year rule in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that forces ISA to develop final regulations by 2023 so that companies can go ahead with deep-sea mining.

    The push for deep-sea mining has also raised questions about this activity's economic and social benefits. Proponents argue that deep-sea mining could create jobs in developing countries while reducing dependence on unsustainable land-based mining. However, critics say that the economic benefits are uncertain and that the potential environmental and social costs could outweigh any gains. 

    Disruptive impact

    Nauru's action has been met by protests from other nations and companies claiming that two years are insufficient to properly understand the deep sea environment and the potential damage that mining can cause to marine life. The deep sea ecosystem is a delicate balance, and mining activities can have far-reaching consequences, including destroying habitats, releasing toxic chemicals, and disrupting natural processes. Given these risks, a growing call is for more robust risk management guidelines and compensation schemes for affected communities.

    Moreover, the technology for deep sea mining is still in its infancy, and there are concerns about the readiness of the equipment and the efficacy of the methods used. For example, In 2021, Belgium-based company Global Sea Mineral Resources tested its mining robot Patania II (weighing about 24,500 kilograms) in the mineral-rich Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), the seabed between Hawaii and Mexico. However, Patania II became stranded at one point as it collected polymetallic nodules. Meanwhile, TMC announced that it recently finished a successful trial of its collector vehicle in the North Sea. Still, conservationists and marine biologists are wary of disturbing the deep sea ecosystem without fully knowing the possible consequences.

    Wider implications for deep sea mining

    Potential implications for deep sea mining may include:

    • Mining companies and nations teaming up for multiple deep-sea mining partnerships despite pushback from conservation groups.
    • Pressure on the ISA to show transparency on who is making the decisions regarding the regulatory policies, as well as stakeholders and funding.
    • Environmental disasters, such as oil spillage, deep sea marine animal extinction, and machinery breaking down and being abandoned on the seafloor.
    • The creation of new jobs in the deep-sea mining industry becoming an important source of employment for local communities.
    • Diversifying the economies of developing countries, enabling them to participate in global markets hungry for the rare-earth minerals mined in their territorial waters. 
    • Geopolitical disagreements on the ownership of marine mineral reserves, worsening existing geopolitical tensions.
    • The destruction of deep-sea ecosystems affecting local fisheries and communities relying on marine resources.
    • New opportunities for scientific research, particularly in geology, biology, and oceanography. 
    • More materials for developing alternative energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. 

    Questions to consider

    • Should deep-sea mining push through even without concrete regulation?
    • How can mining companies and nations be held accountable for potential environmental disasters?

    Insight references

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