The Rush to Mine the Deep Sea: A Race Against Time or a Race to Destruction?

The rush to mine the deep sea is reminiscent of the gold rush of the 1800s, with everyone racing to stake their claim on a new frontier. Recently, a UN deadline for finalizing regulations on deep-sea mining in international waters expired without an agreement. This creates a state of uncertainty and allows countries to apply for mining licences, potentially triggering an ill-advised rush to the ocean floor in search of minerals crucial for the green energy transition. However, the irreversible impact on marine habitats and the disturbance of carbon stores locked away for millennia pose significant concerns for the fragile climate.
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The allure of the deep sea has been present since the 1960s, with its vast, cold, and lightless ocean floor hiding immense potential for extraction. One notable area is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an expansive region spanning over 4.5 million square kilometres in the equatorial Pacific. This area is home to trillions of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks rich in manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt—essential components of rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles.
Additionally, the deep seabed features seamounts, underwater mountains adorned with metal-heavy crusts, and sulphide ores formed around hot, deep-sea vents. The crusts hold precious metals like platinum and molybdenum, while the ores contain copper, gold, and silver. These minerals are highly sought-after in various industries, including electronics, construction, and transportation.
However, the extraction of these minerals comes at the cost of the marine ecosystem that has evolved over millennia. The process of recovering nodules involves disturbing the seabed, separating the nodules from the mud, and then pumping the remnants back into the sea. This destruction would have detrimental consequences for deep-sea life, including sponges, sea cucumbers, octopi, and xenophyophores—strange, tennis ball-sized single-celled creatures. The soft sea mud houses nematode worms and crustaceans.
Marine Scientists, such as Kirsten Thompson from Exeter University, question the true significance of these minerals in the green revolution and advocate against damaging an environment that remains largely unexplored and misunderstood. The potential loss of microbes with medicinal potential is also a concern, given that marine-derived molecules like salinosporamide are being studied for their application in treating brain cancer.
IUCN - Open Source
IUCN - Open Source

Despite these concerns, several countries, including Norway, China, and India, support deep-sea extraction. India, in particular, has already begun exploring options in the nodule-rich Indian Ocean, aiming for self-sufficiency in nickel and cobalt. While France and the UK hold exploration licences, they do not currently support commercial mining, a stance shared by various other European countries.
Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it could reduce China and Russia's control over critical raw materials and potentially replace land mining, which faces issues like deforestation, child labour, and community displacement. However, it is optimistic to assume that terrestrial mining would cease if deep-sea mining becomes costlier. Moreover, issues of social justice remain unresolved, as it is unclear how the spoils would be shared, considering that the international seabed is the common heritage of humankind. Notably, companies like BMW, Volvo, and Samsung have pledged to avoid sourcing minerals obtained through deep-sea mining in their supply chains.
Taking a long-term perspective, it appears wiser to focus on reducing global dependence on rare commodities rather than perpetuating it. Research into alternative battery technologies, such as cobalt-free batteries, is already yielding promising results. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on improved recycling practices. Given the unknown risks and uncertain benefits, deep-sea mining presents a challenging concept to sustain in the long run.
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The ongoing debate surrounding deep-sea mining is reaching a critical point, with discussions taking place at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. Governments are racing to secure critical minerals for low-carbon technologies while committing to protecting marine biodiversity. The lack of comprehensive knowledge about life in the deep sea raises concerns among scientists, conservationists, and NGOs who call for a pause or moratorium on deep-sea mining plans. The potential environmental impacts, such as light pollution, sediment plumes, and noise pollution, highlight the need for cautious decision-making.
As the ISA works toward establishing mining regulations, it is clear that a balance must be struck between the urgent need for resources and the protection of fragile marine ecosystems. The deep sea remains a realm of mystery, and its exploration should proceed with caution to minimize irreversible damage and ensure the long-term sustainability of both our environment and resource extraction practices.
  • Sarah Chabane

    48 w

    I don't know... deep sea mining is pretty scary. I hope countries can agree to implement a ban or at least a moratorium on such practices. But it seems hard when you already have Norway opening its oceans to it....

    • Lucinda Ramsay

      48 w

      We should leave it untouched the only thing humans can possibly bring to the ocean will be negative impacts.

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