The Deep Sea
The deep sea is both the sea and seabed below 200m (over 650ft), the depth at which light fades. It accounts for 95% of the Earth’s living space. Although it is the largest habitat on the planet, it is the least explored. More people have been in space than to the deepest part of the ocean.
What we do know is that despite freezing temperatures and no light, there is a huge variety of life in the deep sea. There are cold-water coral reefs, sponge beds, and active hydrothermal vents, all supporting millions of species. With the cold temperatures and minimal amounts of energy, life in the deep sea moves at a relaxed pace. Most deep sea species grow very slowly; they are late maturing, slow to reproduce, and have long life spans. These factors make them especially vulnerable to disturbance; if a deep sea ecosystem is destroyed, thousands or even millions of years may be necessary to recover.
Deep Sea Mining
Between 1000 and 6000m (3,200-19,600 ft), concentrations of metals such as copper, nickel, manganese, lithium, cobalt, and other commercially valuable metals have been found. These are stored in stone-like materials found on the sea floor known as polymetallic nodules which have been created over millions of years. Deep sea mining is the process of retrieving these mineral deposits from the deep sea floor. This process has not yet begun, but is in the exploration and development phase.
Individual countries have control over their Exclusive Economic Zone; the marine area 200 nautical miles from their coastline. However, the majority of the ocean (over half) lies outside national exclusive economic zones and thus are not “owned” by any country but by the planet as a whole – this area is called the “high seas.” This places these areas under the jurisdiction of the United Nations who have instituted the Law of the Sea to regulate the high seas. The UN also created the International Seabed Authority to manage exploitation of the international seabed. The ISA is charged with regulating deep sea mining.
The International Seabed Authority has so far issued exploration contracts for two million square kilometers/770,000 square miles (roughly the size of Mongolia), which, if allowed to go forward with mining, will be the largest mining operation on the planet. Thirty mineral contractors hold these licenses in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
The importance of the minerals in the deep sea must be weighed against the importance of the deep sea habitat.
Importance of the Minerals
Mineral deposits of the deep sea include: copper, nickel, aluminium, manganese, zinc, lithium, and cobalt. Interest in marine sources for these minerals is growing as land-based sources of them are depleting. These metals are essential for modern batteries.
The high-tech and renewable energy industries need these minerals to make smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric storage batteries. The battery for a single electric car requires 187 pounds of copper, 123 pounds of nickel, and 15 pounds each of manganese and cobalt. To convert the 1 billion cars around the planet to electricity would require more of these metals than exist on land. Therefore, the argument is that deep sea mineral extraction is necessary to reduce and eventually eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.
The potential value of deep sea mining has been estimated between $2-$20 billion USD.
Importance of the Habitat
The oceans are under more threats from humanity than ever before. The deep sea is the largest portion of the ocean and is home to up to 10 million different species. Due to the difficulty in exploring this area, scientific research into the deep sea is still ongoing and many species are yet to be discovered. However, research shows that the deep sea plays a central role in regulating currents and climate as well as carbon storage.
Carbon is stored on land, in the atmosphere, in soil, in plants, and in the ocean. As marine creatures die and sink to the ocean floor, the carbon in their bodies becomes part of the sediment. In some parts of the ocean, this carbon-rich sediment is over 5km (3 miles) thick; it covers 70% of the planet’s surface. This sediment is performing a vital surface for the planet, storing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere.
A healthy, sustainable ocean generates global revenue between $1.5-2.4 trillion USD annually.
This short video from the World Wildlife Fund gives a great overview of the threats of deep sea mining.
Habitat Destruction & Loss of Biodiversity
One of the biggest impacts from deep-sea mining will be the immediate habitat destruction and accompanying loss of marine biodiversity. As the mining machines, weighing more than a humpback whale, move across the ocean floor, they will alter or destroy the ecosystem in their path. Many deep sea species are endemic, they are unique to this specific area, and thus will be wiped out. This large-scale destruction of a habitat of slow-growing species means that the ecosystem that took millions of years to grow will be gone overnight. Sadly, many of the creatures living on the seafloor have not yet been discovered or studied.
Release of Toxic Chemicals
The nodules and sediment on the sea floor will be pumped up to boats on the surface for sorting. Once the minerals are removed, the unwanted sediment and wastewater will be discharged from the ships back into the ocean. Depending upon the current flow and the depth at which this is released, huge plumes of suspended particles will fill the water with the potential to impact ocean ecosystems for hundreds of kilometers.
Without research and testing, it is unknown what effect these plumes will have. The metals could prove toxic to some marine life, the sediment may harm filter-feeding species who rely on clean water to feed (krill, whale sharks, manta rays) and it certainly will cover and smother some bottom-dwelling species.
Disturbing the sediment on the ocean floor which contains massive amounts of carbon, deep sea mining could accelerate or worsen the effects of climate change. Not only could this release this stored carbon, but the natural processes that store carbon could be disrupted and function less efficiently. This sudden increased amount of carbon could have long-term impacts, not only on the deep sea, but shallower waters and the fish that live in them.
The depths where deep sea mining will occur are completely devoid of light. Some animals living there depend on sound and echolocation to communicate and navigate. Adding the noise of the mining operations could seriously disrupt whales and other deep-sea dwelling animals. Without study, the extent of this disruption is unknown.
Compromise of Scientific Discoveries
Although 80% of the ocean is unexplored, scientists believe deep sea ecosystems to be incredibly diverse with endemic species that are as yet undiscovered. As deep sea research continues, not only new species are found but new medicines, and clues into our evolutionary history. For example, one test used to diagnose Covid-19 uses an enzyme from a microbe found on a deep-sea hydrothermal vent. If these ecosystems are destroyed, knowledge and discoveries will be denied to humanity and future generations.
Greenwashing from Mining Companies
“Greenwashing” is when companies or organizations deceive the public claiming that their products or policies are environmentally friendly. In the case of deep sea mining, some companies are using greenwashing techniques to avoid controversy about their proposed operations.
Mining companies claim that they are backing scientific research to determine if deep sea mining will harm the environment. This research already exists and confirms inevitable damage. Similarly, mining companies claim that deep sea mining will reduce the need for land-based mining. Unfortunately, ocean mining will likely be an addition, not a replacement and will add another ecosystem to the list of those that have been exploited.
Deep sea mining has not yet been authorized; it is still in the exploration phase. There is time to have an impact and stop this destructive practice before it begins. Unlike many of the other threats to the ocean, we can be proactive and demand that nothing is allowed until other solutions can be explored and the impact to the ocean can be properly assessed.
Spread the Word
The vast majority of people do not realize that these discussions and explorations are happening. Nor do people fully understand the impact this can have on the marine environment. It is only if enough people are made aware and use their voices that we will have a chance to stop this before it starts. If enough pressure is placed on corporations, governments and policy-makers, we can influence decisions and ensure that more research is done before the deep seabed, and all who live there, is destroyed.
Participate in Urban Mining
Many people have old cell phones and other electronics at home. If you have access to a recycling facility that handles them, use it. Many companies (Apple, Amazon, etc) accept old electronics and some even give a discount on new ones. The more we can reuse, the less there is a need to continue to mine minerals.
Reduce Your Consumption
Rather than get the newest smartphone, continue to use your old one. Rather than have a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and other electronics, consolidate. Accepting that the resources we use are not endless and making changes in our purchases can reduce the need to further mine the Earth’s natural resources. Remember that the ocean, and its inhabitants, will be paying the price for the electronics we think we need.
Support the Moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining
A growing number of organizations and corporations are supporting a moratorium on deep seabed mining. The goal is a ten-year pause before mining begins to allow research into alternative methods and to fully understand the impact mining will have on the environment.
In April 2021 BMW, Volvo, Google, and Samsung all signed the statement in support of this moratorium. This includes committing not to use resources that come from deep sea mining. Be vocal in your support for these companies for making this statement! Encourage other companies to do the same. Message the International Seabed Authority to share your support of a moratorium.
Support a Global Ocean Treaty
A global treaty with regulations on the use of the ocean would create international governance over the high seas and could lend protections from deep sea mining, unsustainable and destructive fishing, and help in the creation of more marine protected areas around the world. Sign this petition to add your name to the more than 3.6 million others who are calling on governments to negotiate such a treaty.
Lobby Your Government Officials
Make your voice heard and your vote count. Conservation must be prioritized over convenience and the bottom line. The endless exploitation of natural resources, without regard for the impact, has to stop. Transitioning to a circular economy with a focus on reusing rather than discarding. Creating less waste is the best hope for living sustainably on this planet. Regulations are one way to make this happen. Encourage your government to support a global moratorium on deep seabed mining and invest in a circular economy.
Support Corporations That Prioritize Conservation
The repair, recycling and reuse of electronics should be encouraged. Any corporation that is developing technologies and procedures to do this, should be encouraged. Companies should prioritize enhancing product design to use less or alternative materials. We must reduce the demand for raw materials; especially those removed from the deep sea.
A number of organizations are working hard to spread the word about proposed deep sea mining and fighting to stop its approval.
Deep sea mining hasn’t yet started, now is the time to learn more and support these, and other, organizations to protect our deep sea and those who live there!
The Ocean Foundation
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
World Wildlife Fund
Global Corporations Support Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining
The World Wildlife Fund is calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining until environmental, social, and economic risks can be studied. In March 2021, four global companies signed on to this movement. BMW, Samsung, Google, and Volvo have all supported the moratorium and committed to not using materials collected from it.
Activists Confront Deep Sea Mining Company, Eastern Pacific Ocean
Victor Pickering, an activist from Fiji, on a Greenpeace boat, held a sign reading: “Our Pacific, not yours to destroy!” He said: “I cannot stay silent and watch another threat – deep sea mining – take away our future.” The ocean needs more people to stand up and use their voiceon its behalf.