Gold rush to the deep seafloor


Hydrothermal vents have given us many things, including new autotrophic paradigms, new species, a new appreciation for seafloor spreading centers, some cool websites and a best-ever IMAX movie . But the fact that seafloor massive sulfides can precipitate a king’s ransom in gold, silver, copper, and zinc was an unexpected boost to the cauldron-like charisma of hydrothermal vent ecosystems.

Deep Sea News first started reporting on Vancouver based company Nautilus Minerals’ intention to mine extinct hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea back in November of 2005. Big-time scientific weeklies Science and Nature finally caught up to our meticulous coverage of vent mining just this week, reporting on the new gold rush to the deep seafloor.

In Science Magazine’s Policy Forum, Jochen Halfar and Rod Fujita write on the “Danger of Deep-sea Mining”. They cite sediment plumes, nutrient loads to oligatrophic surface waters, and toxic effects to the water column among their primary concerns. Rod Fujita’s co-authorship suggests Environmental Defense will be following the issue closely.

Concurrently, the Business section in Nature carries a nicely balanced short story by Mark Schrope called “Digging Deep”. Schrope notes that Nautilus has hired some of the finest scientific experts to explore the problem, including Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, who literally wrote the book on the ecology of vents. “My first impression is that Nautilus is trying to do the right thing” says Paul Lokani of The Nature Conservancy in Papua New Guinea.

Nautilus Minerals chief executive David Heydon is apparently feeling the heat from the new stories. His company is in the midst of conducting an environmental assessment that will last 10 more months before it’s turned over to the Papua New Guinean government. He’s raised over 300 million for the venture so far. Mining is expected to begin in 2009, once Nautilus can secure the mining license. The current license is for exploration only. He and other advocates defend vent mining as a positive alternative to terrestrial mining. “We don’t use cyanide,” says Heydon.

Deep Sea News has at least four stories you can dig into to learn more about hydrothermal vent mining. It turns out we’re one of the most accessible and comprehensive web resources on the issue to date, so I provide links below to these stories. A few sparked comments from seafloor mining advocates (who agree impacts to deep corals need to be assessed). That’s something you won’t find at Science.

Just when I thought today could get no worse

Vents of Gold

Response to Anonymous

Our Friends Nautilus*

7 Replies to “Gold rush to the deep seafloor”

  1. In the fourth article, I think you leapt a bit off the rocker in attributing evil motivations when referring to ‘SMS’ deposits. Volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits are a well-known and well-studied type of mineralization, and drawing an analogy between those occurring on land and the freshly deposited sulfides on the seafloor is a natural one.

  2. No evil motivations implied, NJ. Craig was pointing out that a vent chimney by any other name is still a fragile superstructure.

  3. a vent chimney by any other name is still a fragile superstructure

    Very true. But approached from a purely mineral deposit perspective (which is what a mining company tends to do), then the analogy is reasonable, even if the phrasing might be clumsy.

    This also raises a question about which sulfide mounds they want to mine. Clearly the active vents have ecosystems that would require protection at a minimum (and should be hands off at a maximum). But the mineralization persists even after the vents have shut down and the ecosystems have moved on to greener (yellower?) pastures. Might their interests lie in the pods further from the active vents?

  4. The question is whether these inactive, old vent sites possess a biological community as well and whether it is unique to this habitat. Preliminary evidence by one of Van Dover’s students presented at a meeting last year suggests this is may be the case.

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