What is deep sea extraction? Risks and challenges of the new industrial frontier

The deep sea, the area of ​​the ocean below 200 meters, may soon become the new frontier of mining activities. Companies and countries are rushing to get the green light to start extracting minerals from cobalt to manganese, from the seabed. Conservatives say "not so fast."

Credit Flickr

Although they are lacking in land, most of the mineral deposits are short-lived because our society is increasingly in demand for such resources, especially for green energy technologies and consumer electronics. This has attracted a lot of attention from deep-sea minerals.

The seabed covers a wide range of geological resources and is supported by countless species, still unknown to science. It is a highly regarded part of the world, home to a wide variety of species that are uniquely adapted to such harsh conditions as lack of sunlight and high blood pressure.

Thus, conservation and environmental organizations are concerned about the impact of deep sea extraction and call for caution as long as science is more thorough. Meanwhile, companies claim that the risks are low and there is no time to spend on high demand for minerals. What is the point of getting a deep sea and what is against it?

What is deep sea extraction?

Deep sea extraction (or deep sea extraction), as the name implies, is the process of taking mineral deposits from the bottom of a deep sea. In general, this depth refers to parts of the ocean at a depth of 200 meters – an area that covers about 65% of the Earth's surface.

Image of oceanic features, via Vicky Commune.

In addition to the rich biodiversity, these areas also have unique geological features such as mountain peaks, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons, vast abyssal lowlands, the deepest trenches in the world – for example, the Mariana Trench, which reaches almost 11,000 meters.

"It's the largest biosphere on the planet. It exchanges biomass, nutrients and other elements with surface water, it merges vertically and horizontally, and it probably covers more habitat than we can find in an underground environment." "- said Dr. Cindy van Duver, a deep sea biologist at Doc University. For ZME Science.

Much has changed with the way scientists think about the deep sea. When Van Der first started working in this field in the early 1980s, the “deep sea” meant the place where the lights stopped, about 500 meters away. Although no official definition has been adopted, the 200 m limit is now considered a limit – the limit at which photosynthesis is no longer possible, the temperature drops sharply.

Adjectives associated with the deep sea until the 1980s include inaccessible, remote, untouched, biological deserts, Van Dover adds. These are now obsolete.

"We have access (although this access is expensive), the deep ocean is well connected to the coast and surface waters. As a result of changes in chemicals, waste, plastics and climate, everything affects the deep sea. We know that the diversity of life in the deep sea is rich, and in some places it is abundant – far from the nitrogenous, desert world, it was considered in the 1800s and 1900s. ”

However, although we have learned a lot about this part of the planet, most of it remains unrecognized and misunderstood, which is why the topic of industrial activity in these areas is touching on the nerve.

Hydrothermal vents (such as the bubble pictured here) are hot spots of biodiversity. Image Credits: Roban Kramer.

Should we wait or start extracting as soon as possible?

There are several mining projects in shallow waters around the world, mostly for sand, tin and diamonds. In the 1960s, the Maritime Diamond Corps produced nearly 1 million carats off the coast of Namibia, but not all investments were successful – and the process is tiring.

In some countries' territorial waters, particularly around hydrothermal vents, deep-water mines are also being mined – on shores where water is geothermally heated and rich mineral deposits flow. Papua New Guinea was the first country to approve a permit to study minerals at the bottom of the deep sea, and Japan made the world's first "large-scale" mining of hydrothermal vents in August-September 2017.

But the extraction of deep sea in international waters that do not belong to a particular country has not yet been removed.

So far, the 30-year research contract has been awarded the size and magnitude of three different types of mineral deposits estimated at more than 1.3 million square kilometers. But actual acquisition will not begin until the countries agree on an international mining code, now in the negotiation process.

Scheme of extraction of manganese nodes located on the deep sea floor. Emphasis was placed on environmental impact. Replaced by Oebius et all (2001).

The task of drafting this mining code includes the International Maritime Bottom (ISA), a rather vague and autonomous United Nations organization that manages the extraction of seabed at Jamaican headquarters in Karagston. Every year, delegates from all over the world fly to Kingston for a week and discuss legislation on this trillion-dollar industry that is just waiting for the boom, with little attention from media and even environmental organizations.

ISA set a deadline of 2020 as the deadline for the adoption of the Mining Code, which would allow companies to extract minerals from the ocean floor, but given the current situation, it is highly unlikely that this deadline will be met.

Biologists and conservatives argue that some of the complexity of code approval lies in the fact that ISA has a dual responsibility. When created by the United Nations, ISA was given two mandates: to protect the international seabed from serious damage and to develop its resources to ensure their exploitation for humanity – so what do you do when these mandates clash and begin to penetrate? Different directions? If anything, the role played by the ISA at this time is not to prevent environmental damage as a result of deep sea extraction, but to reduce it.

ISA headquarters. Image Credits: ISA.

Compilation of regulations at this time may also encourage the industry long before mining begins, as long as there is sufficient information on how operators can prevent serious damage to the environment. That is why many now call the moratorium until they have received all the necessary information.

"We need more time to explore the details, more time to do science and get to know the deep oceans, and more time for stakeholders to internetize all the questions," said Andrew Friedman, head of the Pew & # 39; s Seabed Mining Project. "If the activity starts, we want to create a strong regulatory framework."

The idea of ​​a hard test was shared by Van Dover, though the moratorium may not be the best approach, he notes.

"While I welcome the public debate over the deep sea moratorium, I do not know that a moratorium can be the optimal approach. For me, our goal should be to ensure that environmental regulations, standards, and guidelines are tightened before mining can begin, including tightening enforcement. ”

He said the environmental aspects of mining programs should be considered for compliance and are subject to independent review by deep-sea marine environmental experts. Mining should not be allowed where there is not enough data to avoid any damage to the environment. However, because there are huge gaps in our understanding, this will hinder mining activities for some time.

"This requires a thoughtful, informed approach by ISA member states and observers to develop regulations, standards and guidelines by deep-sea ecologists, scientists and environmental experts and all other stakeholders to ensure environmental protection is regulated," Van Duver added.

Who wants to explore the deep sea?

Given the profitable potential for deep sea extraction, several countries and companies have already expressed interest.

Every country has the right and opportunity to find the deep sea and the final fees received as a result of its activities must be shared equally among all of them. Because these rules have not yet been established, countries are only in international waters at the exploratory stage.

Image courtesy of BGR.

A group of corporate enterprises, state-owned companies and several governments have signed contracts to inspect the deep sea. Each company must be sponsored by the country, so they are both responsible for any events.

The list includes China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the Intercontinental Joint Organization (consortium of Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation, and Slovakia). The list includes small island states such as Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Singapore and Tonga. Given the great demand for precious metals in the world, many are closely monitoring developments in this area.

Don’t be fooled, this is not a localized interest in some countries trying to replenish their natural resources. This is perhaps the closest moment to the largest mining operation in human history.

What minerals does the industry want?

The most common targets are nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, silver and gold. The current study focuses on three types of mineral deposits: polymetric nodes (on the seabed), polymethyl sulfides (which form near hydrothermal vents), and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, which include seabed.

Once you find them, such minerals will be used to meet the demand for electronic products and to store energy, such as smartphones, laptops, solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Land supplies are becoming more complex and less profitable, while the demand for minerals is growing. The companies claim that deep sea extraction provides a reliable, clean and ethically mineral source.

"We are now in the age of metals. We desperately need a fourth industrial revolution that will be based on renewable energy, ”said Dr. Gregory Stone, a Deep Green ocean scientist. "We have to get metals somewhere and getting them from the deep sea is an elegant solution."

The seabed is fenced off, destroyed or dismantled by giant machines that weigh more than the blue whale. The deposits were transported by a ship a few kilometers away and had to be treated at sea, where a mass of waste was dumped into the water.

ROV (remotely controlled submarines) has also made progress in recent years, becoming not only more powerful and durable, but also cheaper – even promising to be scrapped in the new era of underwater search.

What effects could it have on the ocean?

Environmental organizations and researchers believe that this activity will affect the seabed, the water column above it and the surrounding area. ოკეანის იატაკის ჩამოსხმა კვანძების მოსაშენებლად შეიძლება გაანადგუროს ღრმა ზღვის ჰაბიტატები რვაფეხა, სპონგელები და სხვა სახეობები.

გამოსახულების კრედიტები: Marek Okon.

სავენტილაციო სამთო მოპოვება, რომელიც ცხოველთა მასობრივ ნაწილს ფლობს სიმკვრივეში, რაც მათ დედამიწაზე ერთ-ერთ ყველაზე პროდუქტიულ ეკოსისტემად აქცევს, სავარაუდოდ გააღვივებს ნალანსს, რამაც შეიძლება ზოგიერთ ცხოველს გააძინოს და მკვეთრად იმოქმედოს სხვათა ჰაბიტატებზე. სხვა სახეობებს, რომლებიც ადაპტირებენ მზის ნაკლებობასა და ღრმა წყლის მაღალი წნევით, შეიძლება გავლენა იქონიოს ხმაურმა და დაბინძურებამ, ხოლო პოტენციური საფრთხეების ჩამონათვალი შორს და გრძელი ხდება.

”მრავალი გაურკვევლობა რჩება ამ სამთო გავლენის შესახებ, მაგრამ გავრცელებული ჰაბიტატის დანაკარგი გარდაუვალი იქნება, თუმცა იმ გარემოში, სადაც ფაუნები ხშირად იშვიათობაა,” – წერს ვან დვერი და კოლეგები გაზეთში, 2018 წელს. ”საჭიროა სიფრთხილის დაცვა. მრავალი ტერიტორია გათვალისწინებულია დაცვისა და რეგიონალური გეგმისთვის, რომელიც ამოქმედებულია სამთო მოპოვების დაწყებამდე. ”

გარემოსდაცვითი ორგანიზაციები ასევე შეისწავლებენ კლიმატის გავლენას, რაც კომპანიებს საშუალებას აძლევს თხრიან მინერალებს, რომლებიც გამოიყენება ლითიუმ-იონური ბატარეების დასამზადებლად. ”ღრმა ზღვის მოპოვებამ შეიძლება გააუარესოს კლიმატის ცვლილება ღრმა ზღვის ნალექებში შენახული ნახშირორჟანგით ან შეუშალოს პროცესები, რომლებიც ნახშირბადის გადატანას უწყობს ხელს ამ ნალექებს,” ამტკიცებს გრინპეი.

მეცნიერები ასევე შეშფოთებულნი არიან, რომ ამ სახეობების ან ეკოსისტემების შესახებ საკმარისი არ არის ცნობილი, რომ დაადგინონ ადეკვატური ფაზა, საიდანაც დაიცვან ისინი ან აკონტროლონ სამთო გავლენა. ინდუსტრიისთვის, ეს ასე არ უნდა იყოს. DeepGreen– მა განაცხადა, რომ საქმიანობა წესების დამტკიცებისთანავე უნდა დაიწყოს.

”ყველანი ახალ ტერიტორიაზე არიან, ამიტომ საინტერესოა ეს ახალი ინდუსტრია. ადრე არავინ გააკეთებდა ამ ტიპის მოპოვებას. ISA– ს უნდა მოემზადოს კოდი და შემდეგ ჩვენ გავაკეთებთ ჩვენს გარემოსდაცვით შეფასებას ამ კოდექსის წინააღმდეგ, ”- თქვა დოქტორ სტოუნმა. ”ეს იქნება პლანეტაზე მეტალების მიღების ყველაზე ნაკლებად ინვაზიური გზა.”

ჩვენ ოდესღაც ვფიქრობდით, რომ ღრმა ზღვა დაუსახლებელი იყო, მაგრამ ახლა ვიცით, რომ ასე არ არის. ბიომრავალფეროვნების სიმრავლეა ღრმა ზღვაში, და მის მიერ მიწოდებული ეკოლოგიური სერვისები ფასდაუდებელია – არა მხოლოდ ოკეანეელებისთვის, არამედ ადამიანისთვისაც.

ISA- ს მყიფე მანდატს შორის, მზარდი ზეწოლა მეტ მინერალურ რესურსებზე და გარემოსდაცვითი გაურკვევლობა, ზღვის ღრმა მოპოვება დაპირისპირებულ თემად იქცევა მომავალი ათწლეულების განმავლობაში.

იქნება ეს რევოლუცია მინერალური რესურსების მოსაწყობად, ან განადგურება მიწისქვეშა გარემოს, ეფექტი იქნება ძლიერი და გრძელვადიანი.

”ღრმა ზღვა შესწავლის რთულ ადგილად რჩება და ჩემი აზრით შეუძლებელი იქნება მისი გამოსწორება, თუ ჩვენ მას” გავწყვეტთ ”, – ასკვნის ვან დუვერი.