Changing Planet

Deep Sea Mining: An Invisible Land Grab

solwara

A deep sea mining machine.

After decades of being on the back burner owing to costs far outweighing benefits, deep sea mining is now emerging as a serious threat to the stability of ocean systems and processes that have yet to be understood well enough to sanction in good conscience their large-scale destruction.

Critical to evaluating what is at stake are technologies needed to access the deep sea. The mining company, Nautilus Minerals, has invested heavily in mining machinery. However, resources needed for independent scientific assessment at those depths are essentially non-existent.

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The layout of a mining operation.

China is investing heavily in submersibles, manned and robotic, that are able to at least provide superficial documentation of what is in the deep ocean. Imagine aliens with an appetite for minerals flying low over New York City taking photographs and occasional samples and using them to evaluate the relative importance of the streets and buildings with no capacity to understand (or interest) in the importance of Wall Street, the New York Times, Lincoln Center, Columbia University or even the role of taxi cabs and traffic signals. They might even wonder whether or not those little two-legged things running around would be useful for something.

The International Seabed Authority, located in Jamaica and created under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is currently issuing permits for mining exploration. At the very least, might there be ways to issue something like “restraining orders” owing to the lack of proof that no harm will be done to systems critical to human needs? Or also at the very least protecting very (very, very) large areas where no mining will be allowed?

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Do you see life in this picture? I do.

The role of life in the deep sea relating to the carbon cycle is vaguely understood, and the influence of the microbial systems (only recently discovered) and the diverse ecosystems in the water column and sea bed have yet to be thoughtfully analyzed. If a doctor could only see the skin of a patient, or sample what is underneath with tiny probes, how could internal functions be understood?

The rationale for exploiting minerals in the deep sea is based on their perceived current monetary value. The living systems that will be destroyed are perceived to have no monetary value. Will decisions about use of the natural world continue to be based on the financial advantage for a small number of people despite risks to systems that underpin planetary stability – systems that support human survival?

In the 1980s, when deep sea mining first became a hot topic, it seemed preposterous to think that humans could up-end planetary processes by burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests and oceans, producing exotic chemicals and materials and otherwise transforming – “taming” – the distillation of all preceding earth history for our immediate use.

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A tragedy of the commons for the benefit of the few.

Buried within the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act of 1980, US legislation sponsored by Senator Lowell Weicker about deep sea mining, there is a provision that mandates for US interests to establish “Stable Reference Zones” of equal size and quality to those proposed for exploitation. The wording in this law was taken from a resolution crafted at the IUCN meeting in Ashkabad in 1978 that I helped draft and later took to Senator Weicker’s trusted scientific advisor, Robert Wicklund, for consideration.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress occurring this September in Hawaii provides a ripe opportunity to set in motion some significant and very timely actions that could help blunt the sharp edge of enthusiasm for carving up the deep ocean. Whatever it takes, there must be ways to elevate recognition of the critical importance of intact natural systems.

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The environmental destruction caused by open mining on land is well documented.

We need technologies to access the deep sea to independently explore and understand the nature of Earth’s largest living system. But most importantly, we need the will to challenge and change the attitudes, traditions and policies about the natural world that have driven us to burn through the assets as if there is no tomorrow.

This “as if” can be a reality – or not – depending on what we do now. Or what we fail to do. However, there is undeniably cause for hope: there is still time to choose.

This article was published originally on the Mission Blue website; reproduced here with permission.

National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, called Her Deepness by the New Yorker and the New York Times, Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and first Hero for the Planet by Time Magazine, is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer with experience as a field research scientist, government official, and director for corporate and non-profit organizations including the Kerr McGee Corporation, Dresser Industries, Oryx Energy, the Aspen Institute, the Conservation Fund, American Rivers, Mote Marine Laboratory, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Rutgers Institute for Marine Science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Ocean Futures.

Formerly Chief Scientist of NOAA, Dr. Earle is the Founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc. (DOER), Founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.) / Mission Blue, Chair of the Advisory Council of the Harte Research Institute, inspiration for the Ocean in Google Earth, leader of the NGS Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and the subject of the 2014 Netflix film, Mission Blue. She has a B.S. degree from Florida State University, M.S. and PhD. from Duke University, 27 honorary degrees and has authored more than 200 scientific, technical and popular publications including 13 books (most recently Blue Hope in 2014), lectured in more than 90 countries, and appeared in hundreds of radio and television productions.

National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, called Her Deepness by the New Yorker and the New York Times, Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and first Hero for the Planet by Time Magazine, is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer with experience as a field research scientist, government official, and director for corporate and non-profit organizations including the Kerr McGee Corporation, Dresser Industries, Oryx Energy, the Aspen Institute, the Conservation Fund, American Rivers, Mote Marine Laboratory, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Rutgers Institute for Marine Science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Ocean Futures. Formerly Chief Scientist of NOAA, Dr. Earle is the Founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc. (DOER), Founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.) / Mission Blue, Chair of the Advisory Council of the Harte Research Institute, inspiration for the Ocean in Google Earth, leader of the NGS Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and the subject of the 2014 Netflix film, Mission Blue. She has a B.S. degree from Florida State University, M.S. and PhD. from Duke University, 27 honorary degrees and has authored more than 200 scientific, technical and popular publications including 13 books (most recently Blue Hope in 2014), lectured in more than 90 countries, and appeared in hundreds of radio and television productions. She has led more than 100 expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater including leading the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970, participating in ten saturation dives, most recently in July 2012, and setting a record for solo diving in 1,000 meters depth. Her research concerns marine ecosystems with special reference to exploration, conservation and the development and use of new technologies for access and effective operations in the deep sea and other remote environments. Her special focus is on developing a global network of areas in the Ocean, “Hope Spots,” to safeguard the living systems that provide the underpinnings of global processes, from maintaining biodiversity and yielding basic life support services to providing stability and resiliency in response to accelerating climate change. Her more than 100 national and international honors include the 2013 National Geographic Hubbard Medal, 2011 Royal Geographical Society Patron’s Medal, 2011 Medal of Honor from the Dominican Republic, 2009 TED Prize, Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, Australia’s International Banksia Award, Italy’s Artiglio Award, the International Seakeepers Award, the International Women’s Forum, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, UNEP 2014 Champion of the Earth, 2014 Glamour Woman of the Year, Academy of Achievement, Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year, UN Global 500, and medals from the Explorers Club, the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, Lindbergh Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Sigma Xi, Barnard College, and the Society of Women Geographers.
  • Benet Tribble

    You would think that humans prefer their habitable land undisturbed by land mining, considering how rare it is. Also, it’s not a stretch to say that the author discriminates against life forms that are destroyed in the process of mining land. If minerals existed in concentrations that were 10x that which is found on land, then we would do well to make use of this technology to provide a better environment for our children and their children.

  • Susan Reid

    The learned author is advocating prudence and caution in relation to deep sea mining activities given the industry’s potential to destroy marine environments and precious ecosystems. This is particularly important when we consider how little is known and understood of deep ocean systems, the seabed, and the interconnected life-webs of marine inhabitants. From seabed to water column, the ocean is intricately implicated in planetary systems on which present and future generations of human terrestrial lives depend: it provides nourishment; circulates the air we breathe and regulates the climate systems on which our agriculture depends. Setting aside marine preservation areas, and approaching deep sea mining activity with caution and greater knowledge of the ecological and marine system risks, is precisely what will ensure a better inheritance for future generations.

  • Wendy Nash

    How can this not be on the front pages of all the major newspapers and on TV .. outrageous and completely nullifying … such sadness for and in the decisions we make as humans … what can we do????

  • Noreen de la Hunty

    What is wrong with us !!! We seemed to b determined ! To destroy our planet ! God help us all if mining in our seas take place !! It’s not rocket Science ! If we mess with nature ! It will kick back a ! Million times harder! We are all ready fracking ! I belive that that has already caused earth quakes in some parts of the world !!!

  • Jason

    Obviously mining on this scale is bad for the environment, but the ultimate reason we mine is for raw materials to make stuff that we all buy. I see the bigger answer to these issues is actually on consumers to become more aware of what they are buying and how often. Do we need to replace and throw away goods at the phenomenal rate that the western society is? With out the ferocious demand of consumers in North America and Europe, the worlds environment might be in a very different state than it is currently.

  • Elizabeth Enfield

    Re Benet Tribble’s comment:
    This comment is contradictory and thus does not make sense and reveals a certain degreee of ignorance of the facts. .

  • Tony Bevington

    Having worked in PNG for many years I see many other problems that could happen with this scheme. The Indigenous people will certainly be exploited. Their natural food sources from the sea will be affected. The place where this is land based will become tempted by the materialism they see. No good will come of it for the Melanesian people. Money will vanish into corrupt government officials pockets.

  • Felix Weise

    I’m guessing the main justification for mining off-shore is – incredibly enough – the reduced cost of accessing the minerals. It would therefore be nice if the article touched on details of the technology or linked to them, particularly with regard to how it compare to the damage of mining on land? Is really nothing known in more detail about the potential scope of the damage? Are we talking potential damage on the scale of off-shore oil drilling accidents? What is the planned scale of the mining effort? How are the mining dregs to be disposed of? What can we say preliminarily on the relative scope of the environmental impact? I suppose some environmental impact assessments have been carried out?

  • Roby Gluckman

    I visited most of the South Pacific last year, diving and snorkeling! This is the last pure environment on earth! It is wonderful- a paradise, untouched and has protected marine parks! I have been to New Guinea- down the Sepik River! The tribes that live along the river banks are uneducated and poor- they must have been promised something! They don’t understand what is being done to their environment! Please send people to explain the facts of what is going on! We must save this last pure environment or we are doomed!

  • Stephen Spark

    The greatest pressure for seabed mining will come, I believe, from small island states, especially archipelagic states that have large EEZs but few resources on land. Such countries’ greed and desperation will encourage them to agree to deals with companies offering ‘instant wealth’ from seabed mining. The environmental consequences will be appalling, of course, but there is also the prospect of social and political unrest and corruption in and around those countries. Expect to see increasing militarisation of hitherto peaceful and remote areas of the world.

    The prospect of seabed mining is at least one driver of the escalating dispute over the Chagos Archipelago, which forms the British Indian Ocean Territory and leased to the USA for the Diego Garcia air base. It is claimed by Mauritius, which is eager for a lucrative revenue stream from seabed mining around the Chagos (which explains why Mauritius got so cross when the UK created a marine park around the Chagos). So far as i know, the area hasn’t been prospected, so no one even knows if there are exploitable minerals or hydrocarbons there, but the Mauritian government certainly seems to think so and is going to UN to make its case. In doing so, there is a real risk of a rift in diplomatic relations between the countries concerned.

    The Chagos dispute is an example of how even the most distant prospect of subsea wealth can lead to international political tensions.

  • LHutton

    I am no rocket scientist and know nothing about undersea mining but I have seen the destruction in my own country with mining waste etc etc. and how it destroys the surrounding countryside and the flora and fauna. We have to learn to switch our focus on how to preserve our fragile planet and all its life forms – we need to learn to stop being greedy and selfish and make do with what we have – and STOP the destruction!! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!! What about the children of other life forms and their children mr ignorant Benet Tribble??

  • Cathy Bache

    It seems to me that there is a deep and fragile vulnerability to this astonishing plant Earth. Why would we want to start carving up the oceans for our material gain when we have already made a substantial mess on the land, destroying habitats, species, unique resources that can never be reclaimed. We are custodians for the future, we need to tread with care and compassion.

  • Allan

    Dr. Earle writes: “In the 1980s, … it seemed preposterous to think that humans could up-end planetary processes by burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests and oceans, producing exotic chemicals and materials…” I am not surprised when my undergrad students come out with statements like that, but I’d be very much surprised if Dr. Earle was not herself worried about these global ecological risks in the 1980s. Perhaps she means that fewer people now regard such concerns as preposterous. Maybe. But recall the Montreal Protocol, the Brundtland report, and the initially galvanized political response to Hansen’s 1988 US Senate testimony on climate change. US public concern about the environment peaked in the late 1980s: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1615/environment.aspx

    On another note, Jason is right to point out that ” the ultimate reason we mine is for raw materials to make stuff that we all buy”, and to that extent ocean mining is not just about “the financial advantage for a small number of people”, as Dr, Earle puts it. It does not follow, however, that consumer awareness is the best response. Preventing destructive production will take care of the consumption problem automatically, but there’s no guarantee that aware consumer choices will do much more than make the occasionally abstemious consumer feel virtuous (or the others feel guilty).

  • Tin

    Sure, why recycle when we can destroy the benthic ecosystem instead?

  • Soraya

    We seemed to repeated this concept of invading the right of nature and environment, why can’t we learnt from the past that how much this idea interrupted the nature and cause distress to environment and indigenous. How much does one person need to consume? I think we overuse of resources and greedy. One have too much and never enough while one have less but yet carefully use just in case is running out and intern their children and their grand children’s children continue to benefit!!

  • Gerard Kortenbout

    Islands of plastic float in the center of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, pure pollution that comes from the land , There is no one that can afford the cost of cleaning up the mess , The fish and mammals that are destroyed by this waste are unknown, no one cares. Now underwater mining threatens open up one than you have to give permission to open all the other mines and not long and we shall be mining without restrained because we can not see the damage we do and the corporate organizations will tell you that they have to satisfy their share holders. Greed knows no restrained. that is why planned obsolescence’s makes it necessary to re purchase items again and again where those same items lasted ten or twenty years before materials where manufactured to break one week or even the day. after the guarantee runs out.

  • Gerard Kortenbout

    You can not stop greed, and you can not stop the damage man does, you will not stop the killing of sea life. Man has no conscience about destruction of life and he will not be held responsible for the destruction of earth

  • Ian Wadham

    Surely the waste and chemicals from actually mining the sea-floor must spread everywhere, suspended or dissolved in the water and carried by currents. The localized destruction we see near mines on land could spread over a very wide area of ocean.

  • Ian Wadham

    Why mine the sea floor? There are massive amounts of minerals dissolved in sea water world-wide, but in tiny concentrations per cubic metre. Shouldn’t we be doing research on how to extract these minerals cleanly and put back what is not needed?

  • Jackie

    When the life in the oceans is destroyed, we will ALL be destroyed…are we now seeing the demise of our kind, in every way?

  • Jackie

    When the life in the oceans is destroyed, we will all be destroyed…..are we now witnessing the demise of our kind? Greed and ignorance have truly got the better of us now….but it’s those we will take with us, destroying all other species that lay in our destructive path…

  • Gurbakhsh Garcha

    The world is struggling with the climate change on earth and the devastation is there for all to see. Now se want to do the same to our oceans, much more difficult to monitor. What sort of world are we going to leave for the future generations? Is there no end to greed?

  • Philomena Hoey

    i FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT THERE IS SO MUCH GREED IN THE WORLD. iT IS SO SAD TO THINK OF ALL THE BEAUTY THAT IS DESTROYED BY WARS AND ARMAMENTS AND NOW WE WANT TO DO THE SAME TO THE SEA AND ITS BEAUTIFUL CREATURES. We are part of this world amd what we are dooing is going to have am influence of future generations.

  • Jaime Saldarriaga

    Great topic!

  • Margaret Olah

    La La Land Mr Tribble. For every action there is a reaction.
    You may be living over a sink hole.

  • Margaret Olah

    La La Land, Mr Tribble. For every action there is a reaction. You may be living over a sink hole.

  • Albert van Daalen

    Little mentioned POLLUTION is one of the main reason.
    Trees need CG2 to turn into oxygen,and we are cutting trees
    without re-planting them.My grandfather in 1880 planted small
    pine trees in Drenthe,Diever Netherlands named Berkenheuvel.There was poverty because
    it was a desert with little places where you could plant vegetables.These trees changed that over time and the 1500 hectares combined with 2 other

  • Albert van Daalen

    We should plant more trees as they need CO2 to change into oxygen and instead we are cutting down more trees without
    replanting them. In 1880 my Grand father started in Diever Drenthe to plant little pine trees in the dessert there and named it
    Berkenheuvel.It became a forest of 1500 hectares and that turned the Province Drenthe from poverty to an area where people could make a good living.Together with other forests it
    is an area of two thirds Manhattan !! POLLUTION is a major
    problem and that is never much mentions in Journals.

  • Albert van Daalen

    CO2 is needed for trees to turn it in Oxygen and we are cutting down more trees than we re-plant.In 1880 my grandfather began planting in Diever Province Drenthe small pine trees in the lower areas of the dessert, named it Berkenheuvel,1500 hectares.It made the Province prosperous.
    Together with others it has now the size of 2/3 thirds of Manhattan.
    POLLUTION is another big problem and should be mentioned
    by the Journals.It destroys more than anything our seas.

  • Albert van Daalen

    Little mentioned POLLUTION is one of the main reason.
    Trees need CG2 to turn into oxygen,and we are cutting trees
    without re-planting them.My grandfather in 1880 planted small
    pine trees in Drenthe,Diever Netherlands named Berkenheuvel.There was poverty because
    it was a desert with little places where you could plant vegetables.These trees changed that over time and the 1500 hectares combined with 2 others are 2/3 Manhattan Island.

  • john dwyer

    Can we be so stupid as to allow these white ants undermine our future survival on this planet?

  • Doroty Mehta

    Indiscriminate sand mining has been responsible for the collapse of many bridges, and the flooding of many towns and cities. Changing the course of what nature has built without due process causes destruction and many deaths.

    Sand mining is shoreline, if you look at the google maps of these areas you will see that the designated area morphs into a dead zone eventually. This is shorelines and rivers, imagine the devastation that can and WILL be caused by deep sea mining and destruction of large areas of the sea bed. The impact will be enormous.

  • Cornelia Bryant

    It is difficult to understand how people that say they love their country are doing the exact opposite — just look at the effects of not just pollution, but also the destruction of natural beauty for the sake of industrial gain.

  • D Naruka

    Utterly shocking. I can’t fathom how the Seabed Authority even thinks that this would not be harmful. Human greed absolutely knows no limits, no matter where in the world one goes.

  • Marius Fourie

    Uttely shocking – humans are our own worst enemies!!!!!!!

  • Marius Fourie

    Utterly shocking – we humans are our own worst enemies!!!!!!!!

  • Chris Bystroff

    It’s not greed. It’s desperation. Humans are overpopulated. Support new contraceptive technology.

  • phillip wallis

    I am surprised that a Canadian company is involved. If the project is viable, watch for Australian involvement. If this goes ahead, the provincial Govts of Sepik, Madang, Morobe, Manus, New Britain and New Ireland will take their (meagre ) share of the profits – and trouser it. The locals won’t get a look-in.
    I worked in P-NG from ’76 to ’84, when corruption was rare. Nowadays, by all accounts, it is rife.
    It’s a beautiful country. I pity the people.

  • Suraya Choudhury

    Stop destroying our planet please!Thankyou!

  • Andres E. Aguiar A.

    The greed of humans is unsatisfiable, rampant disrespect for other species is abusive, wars, violence, terrorism, racism, clasism, lack of charity to the poor and hungry, loss of universal moral values, are all signs of the human being of today and his of lack of humanism. UN, UNESCO, EU and other official organisms have been invaded by politics and corruption, accepting commissions for issuing illegal permits. If we do not take severe and immediate measures to stop all these evils, we will weep tears of blood and have no future nor earth nor the solar system.

  • alexi

    I truly can’t understand the short sightedness of some people,they are destroying the only place we can survive in the vastness of the universe,but the sad truth is, when it when it’s a choice between profit or people and the planet,I am so sorry to say that profit will always win ,especially as it heavily backed by government,as soon as the profit sign appears logic and common sense fly out of the window,so so but it’s also a reality 🙁

  • Ahmad Zafar

    People should understand that it’s not greed of the common man, but the greed of the club of powerful capitalists across the globe which exploits humans and nature alike. Its extremely important for people to be politically enlightened so as to understand the magnitude of power they confer powerful few in the world. This, I think is more important than the scientific education so enthusiastically revered in public opinion.

  • Hieugomeister

    This day the UN organizations are quite corrupt with $$$. I am hopeful, but I think we are not going to get very far trying to resist the powerful greedy few. This sort of fighting requires togetherness and a good coordination to drive our punch straight to the face of those bad decision makers.

  • David Davis

    There is speculation – not just science fiction – that we could ‘ ‘terraform’ other solar system planets (notably Mars) and perhaps exoplanets to make them habitable by human beings. However, we should first make sure that we don’t ‘deform’ Earth to such an extent that it becomes uninhabitable by human beings and other creatures. A good way to start would be to prevent all undersea mining and ensure that all terrestrial mining meets strict environmental safety standards. This will require global cooperation in everyone’s interest.

  • Lina

    Just so everyone knows, avaaz is currently having a petition you can sign against this: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/png_nautilus_sust/?cYuVOkb

  • Fr. Mathias Lopa

    I agreed with the description of the experiment of the Deep sea mining as an invisible land Grab, by Canadian deep sea mining company facilitated by the PNG national government without conscientious agreement with the citizen of this nation of PNG.
    The sea and and land are the livelihood of the people of the Bismark sea. It becomes the wealth of the investors while it is a misery, exploitation of the people of the Bismark sea.
    PNG government choose wealth of its citizens. it is an over excessive use of capitalist democracy. Therefore the government of PNG is a legal criminal.
    Thank you very much.
    Fr. Mathias Lopa

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