Machines intended for use in deep sea mining off the Papua New Guinea coast. Photo: Nautilus minerals

By Damian Carrington
4 June 2017

(The Guardian) – Mining the deep ocean floor for valuable metals is both inevitable and vital, according to the scientists, engineers, and industrialists exploring the world’s newest mining frontier.

The special metals found in rich deposits there are critical for smart electronics and crucial green technologies, such as solar power and electric cars. But as the world’s population rises, demand is now outstripping the production from mines on land for some important elements.

Those leading the global rush to place giant mining machines thousands of metres below the sea surface say the extraordinary richness of the underwater ores mean the environmental impacts will be far lower than on land. But critics say exotic and little-known ecosystems in the deep oceans could be destroyed and must be protected.

Dozens of exploration licences have already been granted for huge tracts of ocean floor and world leaders, including the G7 nations (pdf), have their eyes on the opportunities. But the rules to ensure the responsible exploitation of this global resource are still being written.

The acid test is set to be the start of commercial sea bed mining, due to begin within two years, 1,600m below waters off Papua New Guinea. There, Nautilus Minerals plans to release three giant crawling machines to grind up rocks rich in copper, zinc, and gold and pump the slurry up to a custom-built surface ship at a rate of over 3,000 tonnes a day. […]

“Mining will be the greatest assault on deep-sea ecosystems ever inflicted by humans,” according to hydrothermal vent expert Verena Tunnicliffe, at the University of Victoria in Canada. She argues that active vents must be off-limits for mining to protect the new knowledge and biotechnology spin-offs they can deliver and strict controls must be in place elsewhere: “This gold rush needs some strong traffic control in regulation.”

Others, such as Rakhyun Kim at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, go further: “The global community should question and scrutinise the underlying assumption that deep seabed mining is going to benefit humankind as a whole before commercialising the common heritage of humankind.” [more]

[cf. First-ever deep ocean mine to destroy seabed for ore – ‘It’s a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years’]

Is deep sea mining vital for a greener future – even if it destroys ecosystems?

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