Tapping the Oceans Mineral Wealth With Deep Sea Mining

Nautilus Mining is the virus that will not go away.  You have to admire their persistence if it did not come with destruction of deep-sea ecosystems.

Nautilus Minerals estimated in a September 2009 corporate presentation that “thousands of underwater sulphide systems [hydrothermal vents] exist,” and “if only half of underwater systems are geographically viable, seafloor production would represent several billion tons of copper per annum.”In a review paper published June 23 online in the journal Mineralium Deposita, Cathles, Cornell professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, writes that while land-based deposits may be a dwindling source of valuable minerals, deposits on the ocean floor could power humanity for centuries…Little by little, mining companies are working their way through the international laws, committees, and bureaucracies in order to try out some of the advanced undersea technologies that are being developed. via Tapping the Oceans Mineral Wealth With Deep Sea Mining | Oil Price.com.

Alarming is that our need for these minerals is driving a market where mining 2-4 kilometers below the oceans surface could actually be profitable.  More alarming is that author of this article feels that safeguards against environmental damage and fair wealth distribution to local people are nothing but “bureaucracies” to overcome so that mining companies can play with their big toys.
Newsweek recently broached this subject discussing the move by China to being exploring the mining of massive sulfide deposits, i.e. hydrothermal vents.  Samantha Smith from Nautilus stated, “We’ve put in place a number of measures to ensure that ecosystems and biodiversity are maintained.” But I am one unconvinced much as I was nearly 3 years ago when I wrote my first deep-sea mining post. Deep-sea mining continues to be on our radar and it should be on yours to.  Why am I skeptical?

  1. Seafloor mining would create sediment plumes that would smother organisms relying on filter feeding.
  2. Removal of hydrothermal vents, even extinct, could potential expose non-vent organisms to toxic levels of heavy metals.  These species, unlike those occurring at vents, are not adapted for this exposure.
  3. Mining operations are not delicate processes and as such unintentional destruction of nearby habitats is likely.  In my experience with one ton plus, remote operated vehicles precisions movements are often not possible.
  4. The economic incentive lies with continued and total removal of vent fields not with their protection.  Will mining companies exercise discretion.  Lessons from terrestrial mining indicate they will not.

Prior DSN posts about mining the seafloor

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/), connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.