What does deep sea mining promise?

The specialized machinery for finding and drilling the sea and ocean floor outweighs the 200-tonne blue whale, the largest animal the world has ever known. These machines look very scary, especially because of their huge spiked cutter, designed to grind hard terrain.

As 2019 rolls around, giant remote-controlled robots will roam the bottom of the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea, chewing it up in search of rich copper and gold reserves for Canada’s Nautilus Minerals.

Deep sea mining tries to avoid the costly environmental and social pitfalls of land mining. This has prompted a group of policymakers and research scientists to develop rules that they hope can minimize environmental damage. They suggested postponing the search for minerals until technologies were developed to reduce the amount of precipitation during seabed operations.

“We have the opportunity to think things through from the beginning, analyze the impact and understand how we can improve or minimize the impact,” says James Hine, senior scientist at the USGS. “This should be the first time we can get closer to the goal from the very first step.”

Nautilus Minerals has offered to relocate some animals from the wild for the duration of the work.

“The Nautilus claim that they can just move parts of the ecosystem from one to another has no scientific basis. It is either very difficult or impossible,” comments David Santillo, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter in the UK.

The ocean floor plays an important role in the Earth’s biosphere – it regulates global temperatures, stores carbon and provides habitat for a huge variety of living things. Scientists and environmentalists fear that actions taken in deep water will not only kill marine life, but could potentially devastate much wider areas, triggered by noise and light pollution.

Unfortunately, deep sea mining is inevitable. The demand for minerals is only increasing because the demand for mobile phones, computers and cars is growing. Even technologies that promise to reduce dependence on oil and reduce emissions require a supply of raw materials, from tellurium for solar cells to lithium for electric vehicles.

Copper, zinc, cobalt, manganese are untouched treasures at the bottom of the ocean. And of course, this cannot but be of interest to mining companies around the world.

The Clariton-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a particularly popular mining area located between Mexico and Hawaii. It is equal to approximately the entire continental United States. According to calculations, the content of minerals reaches about 25,2 tons.

What’s more, all of these minerals exist at higher levels, and mining companies are destroying vast amounts of forests and mountain ranges to extract the hard rock. So, in order to collect 20 tons of mountain copper in the Andes, 50 tons of rock will need to be removed. About 7% of this amount can be found directly on the seabed.

Of the 28 research contracts signed by the International Seabed Authority, which regulates subsea mining in international waters, 16 are for mining in the CCZ.

Deep sea mining is an expensive undertaking. Nautilus has already spent $480 million and needs to raise another $150 million to $250 million to move forward.

Extensive work is currently underway around the world to explore options for mitigating the environmental impact of deep sea mining. In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted exploration and mapping work off the coast of Hawaii. The European Union has contributed millions of dollars to organizations such as MIDAS (Deep Sea Impact Management) and Blue Mining, an international consortium of 19 industry and research organizations.

Companies are actively developing new technologies to reduce the environmental impact of mining. For example, BluHaptics has developed software that allows the robot to increase its accuracy in targeting and movement so as not to disturb large amounts of seabed.

“We use real-time object identification and tracking software to help see the bottom through rainfall and oil spills,” says BluHaptics CEO Don Pickering.

In 2013, a team of scientists led by a professor of oceanography at the University of Manoa recommended that about a quarter of the CCZ be designated as a protected area. The issue has not yet been resolved, as it may take three to five years.

The director of Duke University in North Carolina, Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, argues that in some ways, marine populations can recover quickly.

“However, there is a caveat,” she adds. “The ecological problem is that these habitats are relatively rare on the seafloor, and they are all different because the animals are adapted to different liquid substances. But we are not talking about stopping production, but just thinking about how to do it well. You can compare all these environments and show where the highest density of animals is in order to completely avoid these places. This is the most rational approach. I believe we can develop progressive environmental regulations.”

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