'But in all my adventures, across every ocean ecosystem, nowhere has captured my imagination
quite like the deep sea, the ultimate playground for any intrepid ocean explorer.'
Navigating the World of
Deep-Sea Mining, Climate Solutions and the Unknown
Hidden in inky black depths under immense crushing pressure, there is a world that exists out of site. It’s Earth’s final frontier of exploration. A realm where ocean oddities thrive, translucent bodies are the norm and creatures can live for a 1000+ years. The Deep. This mysterious but alluring world is home to a treasure trove of life, countless species waiting to be discovered.
Yet, amidst these bewildering creatures, a threat looms - It’s understudied, and threatens irreversible damage but it’s not a mythical sea-monster or legendary beast but in fact something far more real. The threat of Deep Sea mining.
A moratorium is a temporary ban that allows regulators to gather evidence and understand the risks of a proposed activity before making a decision
Deep Sea mining is a complex topic, theres no black and white answers and the more I learn about this developing industry the more questions I have. Its a common sentiment in this space, too many questions and not enough answers. That’s why I am in support of a moratorium on deep sea mining so we can give the science a chance to catch up ensuring that in our quest for green tech we don't risk triggering another crises in our oceans.
What is Deep-Sea Mining?
Deep-sea mining is the process of mining the deep sea bed in search of rare earth metals. Materials such as Lithium, Cobalt, Gold, Manganese, Zinc, Nickel, Copper and Aluminium. These minerals, termed 'transition-critical' raw materials, hold the key to our green energy future, powering the batteries that fuel our dreams of a sustainable tomorrow. But harvesting these materials from the deep when so little is known about deep sea ecology could result in destroying fragile habitats and putting species at risk of extinction.
There are three key habitats considered for deep Sea mining; Hydrothermal Vents, Seamounts and Nodules on the abyssal plain. Hydrothermal vents and seamounts are critical habitats supporting an abundance of charismatic life but the abyssal plain which is the primary focus of current commercial efforts is far more complex.
To mine these materials machines will be deployed 1000s of meters below the surface to harvest metallic structures called polymetallic nodules that are rich in rare earth metals from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone a region classified as abysal plain. But the impacts of these machines could be felt far beyond the ocean floor with dust plumes travelling for miles and noise pollution filling the water column. The Abyssal plain has often been described as being devoid of life but researchers working in the Clarion- Clipperton zone have discovered over 5,000 new species ranging from glass sponges to sea cucumbers, 88-92% of which had never been seen before. Without having a thorough understanding of these networks of ecosystems its impossible to know how vulnerable to disturbance these species are.
While the impacts of deep sea mining are still unknown, we are currently facing the very known threat of the climate crisis. Access to rare earth metals is pivotal in propelling our transition away from fossil fuels, and facilitating the shift to electric vehicles. These transitions are imperative if we are to achieve our net-zero goals and combat the pressing challenges of climate change. So what is the solution?
What are the alternatives to deep sea mining?
Transitioning to green technologies and energy sources is crucial in combating climate change, but viable alternatives to deep sea mining exist. The most promising solutions lie in innovation and recycling. By recycling old technology that utilises rare earth metals, we can establish a more circular economy, significantly diminishing the pressure on sourcing rare earth metals. But even with recycling and innovation in battery technology, supply won’t meet our growing demand.
Our current reliance on rare earth metals from terrestrial mines comes at a grave cost — deforestation and humanitarian concerns cast a long shadow over these practices. At least with terrestrial mines we can effectively monitor their impact and implement ethical practices to better protect people and develop re-wilding / conservation initiatives to minimise environmental impact. The deep is so heavily understudied we could cause irreparable damage before we have had a chance to comprehend the complexity of these ecosystems, wiping out entire species before they have even been discovered and disturbing one of our greatest carbon stores. The very materials coveted in deep sea mining, polymetallic nodules, are ancient treasures taking millions of years to form, making their recovery an impossibility once disrupted. It’s these structures themselves that act as a rare commodity in the abyssal plains providing a hard substrate for life to cling to making them an essential factor in the survival of these deep sea communities. But most importantly, deep sea mining might not alleviate deforestation; experts warn it could exacerbate it due to intensified competition between terrestrial and deep sea mining industries.
By gaining a greater understanding of deep sea ecosystems we can better navigate the potential impact of deep sea mining ensuring progression and the balance between human progress and environmental preservation.
Why should we care?
This week the UK agreed to back the Moratorium on comercial deep sea mining following warnings from scientists that the granting of licenses for industrial scale explotation could have grave consequences for both marine life and our oceans ability to store carbon.
Our ocean occupies 99% of the living space on earth, she is home to an unfathomable number of species, over 90% believed to still be awaiting description. She doesn't only support an incredible abundance of life, she also acts as OUR lifeline. Every breath we take connects us to the ocean. Phytoplankton provides more oxygen than any terrestrial forest. The deep sea is one of the greatest carbon stores on earth. Our reefs and kelp forests defend us from storms safeguarding our coastlines, even our deep diving great whales act as carbon pumps helping us to fight climate change. She is a powerful force of nature circumnavigating our earth and connecting the shallowest waters to the deepest depths. But despite just how connected our lives are to the ocean, these valuable ecosystems are under threat and under studied.
As the threat of deep sea mining looms ever closer, now becoming a reality just over the horizon, it is imperative that we embark on a journey of exploration to study these unique and enigmatic ecosystem before we make irreversible decisions. There may come a time where mining the deep sea is the most sustainable option, but until we have a greater understanding we will not be able to make an informed decision. By delving into the depths we can begin to unveil the complexity of our deep worlds ensuring any decision we make doesn’t only safeguard our oceans but also ourselves.
- Inka Cresswell