Sunday, June 07, 2020

Mining the Oceans

As the USA frames its policy to exploit the mineral wealth of outer space and the Moon, the other largely unexplored region of the our planet is now being targeted for mining. Some of the most sought-after metals and minerals are largely untouched deep in our oceans. Countries and commercial entities are centred upon mining for metals and minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper, which are found in polymetallic nodules on the seabed. By some estimates there are greater deposits of manganese, cobalt and nickel on the deep-seabed than on land. There are deposits all around the world. But a lot of the current interest is focused on the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific, (other regions for exploration in the Central Indian Ocean Basin and Western Pacific Ocean, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.)

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) describes itself as "an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea." Basically, its role is divided between encouraging and supporting both industry and science, mining and conservation. The ISA is still working on a mining code and other regulations, which some hope will be agreed at the body's next annual meeting (which has been postponed until October 2020). But the ISA has entered into a number of 15-year exploration contracts. At time of writing, the ISA says that includes 30 contractors, which are often companies sponsored by their national governments.

China, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, Japan  have exploration contracts for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts. Cobalt is a vital component in batteries, including car batteries. It is a rare mineral and considered dangerous to mine on land. Germany has an exploration contract for polymetallic sulphides. Polymetallic sulphides are a source of base metals, including copper, zinc, lead, and tin. They also include precious and special metals like gold, silver bismuth, selenium, tellurium, gallium or indium, which are used to make electronic components, like solar panels, and in telecommunication and other computer industries. Poland, India, France, the UK, Belgian, Singapore, and, significantly, the Pacific islands of Kiribati, Cook Islands, Tonga, and Nauru have interests as well. It's significant because historically, it's been other countries, such as Australia, that have wanted to benefit from resources owned by the Pacific islander states.

Deep-sea mining presents an advantage on that score as the ocean-based resources would be "harvested" by remotely-controlled machines that suck up the nodules or scrape crusts from underwater ridges. But it will not be without ecological consequences. 

A study led by Dmitry M. Miljutin in France suggested that "about 1 square kilometers of sea floor will be mined daily, or about 6,000 square kilometers over the 20-year life of a mine site...Thus, the vast deep-sea seafloor will be seriously disturbed during the mining operations." 

Another study published this year by James Hein, Andrea Koschinsky and Thomas Kuhn suggests nodule collectors "will crush any organisms that are unable to escape and compact the sediment, reducing its habitability for sediment infauna."

 Scientists want more time research the impact of deep-sea mining. What we do know for certain is that areas where harvesting has been tested have so far shown little sign of recovery.

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

Another article worth reading: