Environment, Science

Deep-sea mining: are we out of our depth?

This month, UK Seabed Resources became the first British firm to obtain its license to explore an area of the Pacific Ocean, over ten times the size of Norfolk, in the search for small, mineral‐rich rocks. However, over-exploitation has already caused us to pollute both the world’s land and air resources. Could the process of deep-sea mining threaten another one of Earth’s precious ecosystems?

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Despite companies being aware of the valuable metals and minerals along the seafloor for decades, it is only recently that the prospect of an underwater mining boom is appearing ever more likely. Rising mineral prices and advances in deep-sea technologies have allowed extraction processes to become increasingly economically viable. At present, it is impossible to determine the exact value of underwater mineral deposits. But David Cameron has said that the venture could add up to £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years.

Copper, cobalt and gold are just some of the treasured minerals and metals that can be found in abundance along the seafloor. Deposits are located around hydrothermal vents, with geothermal activity heating the water escaping the vents up to 400°C. As the warm water mixes with the near-freezing seawater above, the minerals precipitate out, forming rocky chunks, known as nodules, with a diameter similar to that of a tennis ball.

As the discovery of hydrothermal vents is relatively new, the scientific community is yet to fully understand the functions of these deep-sea vents and how disturbing them will affect the surrounding ecosystem in the future. Although we are unable to identify its precise impacts, deep-sea mining is already highly controversial among conservationists, fisherman and coastal residents, with many expressing environmental concerns. The techniques used to collect the nodules involve using a seabed harvester and then breaking up the nodules to release the minerals. Many marine scientists fear that the dust generated from vacuuming the seabed will force animals to either find new habitats or risk making them extinct.

In contrast, those who support deep-sea mining suggest that the project may be less disruptive than it initially appears. They explain that the minerals found under the sea are at concentrations up to ten times greater compared to those on land, therefore a smaller volume of earth will be affected, and hence less waste will be generated. However, those against deep-sea mining remain entirely unconvinced that the mining companies are relating this to a potential environmental benefit, and are instead concerned that the bottom of the ocean is the perfect location to carry out something fishy.

Controversy aside, the minerals and metals that would be collected from the seafloor will not simply be manufactured for the obvious use of jewellery and stainless steel, but for use in technologies of the future, such as rechargeable batteries, aerospace and alternative-energy industries. Despite the complex engineering challenges that lie ahead, 16 other companies have already acquired licenses that allow exploration of areas within the world’s largest oceans. Although licenses that allow extraction are yet to be issued, this may become possible within just 3 years.

Regardless of the debate, it seems humanity’s rapaciousness for wealth will lead to an underwater gold rush becoming inevitable in the near future. Only time will tell whether, by exploiting one valuable marine resource, we destroy an invaluable resource: the biological one.

07/06/2013

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chloemoore



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