More than a million square miles of the deep sea’s floor have remained untouched for millennia. But that is changing rapidly. Industry and alternative energy solutions drive the rising demands for ocean minerals. Seabed mining also offers an attractive solution as deforestation criticisms rise and terrestrial supplies decline.
But seabed mining isn’t without its own set of risks. There is very little known about the ocean floor. When the search for ocean minerals broadens, there will be a disruption among exotic creatures and unusual habitats. It will impact coastal regions through ecosystem changes. How can a healthy balance be struck, one that will allow access these valuable ocean minerals without creating irreversible harm? This is the most pressing question as seabed mining activities escalate.
Seabed Mining Today and the Demand for Ocean Minerals
For decades, there has been a recognition of the presence of precious ocean minerals. But only in the last few years have deep sea activities markedly advanced. In part, this has resulted from advances in technology. Remote-operated vehicles, robotics, and communication technology are among the most notable advances facilitating these practices. But more so, there is a heightened demand for ocean minerals.
Alternative energy solutions have triggered a major source of demand for ocean chemical. For example, electric vehicles require batteries that utilize lithium. Hybrid cars require ample amounts of lead. Platinum, as well, is utilized by hydrogen-powered vehicles. As these and other alternative energy forms increase in use, land-based resources will naturally decline. And with complaints about the terrestrial ecosystem disruption that mining causes, industries will find seabed mining less cumbersome.
Ocean Minerals and Nations that Might Benefit from Seabed Mining
The attractive aspect of seabed mining involves the rich ocean mineral deposits present. Polymetallic nodules line the deep ocean floor that is as deep as 18,000 feet below sea level. These nodules contain a variety of ocean minerals, including manganese, iron, copper, cobalt, and nickel.
Likewise, hydrothermal vents also exist along the deep seabed allowing the sequestering of carbon and methane. This facilitates the formation of these polymetallic nodules in addition to providing unique habitats for ocean life.
Polymetallic nodules are naturally rich in ocean minerals. And the presence of several minerals in one nodule makes seabed mining highly efficient. Several countries have such resources near their coastlines.
Chile and Peru have copper and lithium ocean minerals. South Africa and Guinea enjoy an abundance of platinum, manganese, bauxite, and chromium. The waters off China and India have essentially all ocean minerals in demand.
But concerns over seabed mining are rising.
Environmental and Social Impact of Seabed Mining
Though demand for ocean minerals increases, many express concerns over the impact seabed mining will create. From an environmental perspective, the polymetallic nodules and deep ocean floor represent unique habitats. Free from vibration, light, noise, and water currents, seabed mining would disrupt these ecosystems. In addition, seabed mining creates sediment plumes that could have detrimental effects. And given the fact that these nodules grow only a few millimeters over millions of years, sustainability is a major issue.
Environmental effects of seabed mining are certain to occur, but their exact impact is unknown. However, the social impact for those living along coastal regions and beyond might be even greater. Disruption of ocean ecosystems and hydrothermal vents could affect climate change. As as result, it might also affect secondary coastal activities.
Proactive Pursuits in Seabed Mining Regulations and Practices
In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea formed the International Seabed Authority. This entity oversees all activities regarding ocean minerals and seabed mining outside of nations’ coastal water jurisdictions. It is therefore their task to licence seabed mining activities for ocean minerals in open waters. To date, the International Seabed Authority has issued 29 such licenses with the majority off the coasts of Japan and Papua New Guinea. More and more are applying.
With the rise in seabed mining licensing, several organizations and projects are actively researching safer and more sustainable practices. For example, the EU launched the MIDAS project in 2013 to create a responsible framework for seabed mining practices. A sequential approach involving study, surveys, exploration, testing, appraisal, rehabilitation and long-term monitoring was devised.
Similarly, the Blue Mining Project is an international consortium of 19 enterprises and research organizations. It seeks to identify sustainable blue mining solutions. These collaborations hope to better guide the ISA and seabed mining companies in advancing responsible environmental and social practices.
Acquiring Ocean Minerals Sustainably and Responsibly
To say the waters surrounding seabed mining are still quite murky is perhaps an understatement. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Oceanographic researchers are hard at work to explore these ecosystems, but access is challenging. And knowing which seabed mining solutions are most protective of the environment and coastal regions is difficult. In looking ahead, collaborative projects will help guide best practices and regulations. But business solutions will also be needed as part of the advancing blue economy.
For more on Bold Business’ series on the Blue Economy, check out this story on creating a sustainable future.