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Today we want to raise the topic that is rarely discussed – it is the valuable minerals in the depths of the World Ocean. First and foremost, countries and companies aim to extract metals such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium, which are essential components of batteries and accumulators for many modern devices. These include not only smartphones or laptops but also important elements for the development of green energy such as electric cars and solar panels. This is precisely why, if underwater mining is considered evil, it is minimal – some argue that it provides the required components for green energy, allowing humanity to abandon oil and overcome the climate crisis.
There are quite large reserves of these metals on land, but the situation may change in the nearest decades. Thus, with the gradual transition of people to electric cars, demand for nickel, lithium, and cobalt is growing strongly, and experts even predict their shortage. Moreover, by the middle of the century, the population of the Earth will increase to almost 10 billion people. And if current rates of technological development and consumption persist, we will need many times more metals than now. However, scientists oppose deep-sea mining, as they are convinced that this emerging industry will forever change the ocean, its inhabitants – and our own lives. All this is in today’s letter.
This text is almost 23 thousand characters long, it will take about 14 minutes to read.
The material consists of three chapters. The first one explains why nobody has started mining the ocean floor yet, despite the fact that there are many valuable resources there. The second chapter is devoted to the inhabitants of the ocean floor (they live without light and sound), as well as to the methods of extracting metals which will likely destroy the local animal world. In the third chapter, you will learn about attempts to make deep-sea mining safe and apply a cyclical production model, which should greatly reduce the damage humans are causing to the planet.
Chapter one. Who needed to “dig” the ocean?
And what is the complexity here in general?
Deep-water mining is considered any mining at a depth of 200 meters or more – it is here, on the ocean floor, that the largest deposits of metals are stored.
The territory of the World Ocean can be divided into international waters (i.e. neutral, considered common) – which make up 60% of its area – and territorial waters belonging to specific states. There are deposits of metals in both areas. However, the concentration in territorial waters is much lower, and only those states to which these areas belong can extract resources from them. Neutral waters are a real treasure trove of metals: just one underwater area, Clarion-Clipperton between Hawaii and Mexico (its area is one-ninth of the World Ocean area), contains more manganese, cobalt and nickel than all known terrestrial deposits combined.
The problem is precisely that neutral waters belong to all of humanity. Therefore, the question of who and how should extract resources from them is a complex one. To answer it, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 on the initiative of the UN. It has two main missions, which are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the ISA must ensure that the concept of “common heritage of mankind” is respected. According to this concept, states do not have the right to dispose of marine resources if they do not belong to their territorial waters, and the exploration and use of the ocean floor is possible only for the benefit of the entire population of the planet. On the other hand, another duty of the ISA is to issue permits for the exploration of ocean depths and subsequent extraction to states or companies that represent them.
- There are critics of the ISA who believe that the decision-making process in this organization is not transparent: meetings are held behind closed doors, and the ISA leadership is reluctant to communicate with journalists and independent scientists. At the same time, the procedure for issuing licenses for deep-sea mining is shrouded in special secrecy: decisions on this matter are made solely by the Legal and Technical Commission, without consulting other organization members.
It is the International Seabed Authority that determines the boundaries of the areas in the neutral waters of the World Ocean where it is possible to extract valuable minerals. Access to these areas is not easy: first, one must obtain official approval from the ISA, and then conduct at least 15 years of research to understand what and in what quantities can be extracted there. If a private company wants to engage in this, it will have to find a sponsor country that agrees to act as a guarantor. In case the company violates the rules of deep-sea mining, its sponsor country will be held accountable before the world community.
In theory, after 15 years of research, a candidate for mining submits a plan for resource development to the Ministry of Natural Resources and awaits a license – and only after obtaining it, can they begin work. In practice, no country or organization in the world has reached the final stage and made a plan for exploring the seabed in neutral waters. Although South Korea, Japan, India, and Germany have already conducted at least one test mining on their coastal areas.
However, in the coming years, everything may change due to the activity of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI) – a subsidiary of Canadian company The Metals Company. In 2021, NORI announced that it had successfully completed a 15-year study of a section of the World Ocean and had received permission from the ISA for test mining. By 2024, the company plans to begin full-scale mining of metals from the seabed. NORI’s site is located in the Clipperton-Clarion Zone between Hawaii and Mexico, known for the world’s largest reserves of rare metals.
Whether the company’s plans will come to fruition is still unknown. There are still many unresolved legal issues, with the main one being the lack of common rules for deep-sea mining in neutral waters. The International Seabed Authority has been developing them for several years now but has yet to complete them. Organizations will need to provide a detailed description of what actions on the ocean floor are allowed and which are not. It is also necessary to determine how countries should divide the “common heritage of mankind” i.e., the extracted metals, in order to serve the interests of all, rather than just specific countries or companies.
If by summer, ISA fails to finalize the general rules, there is a risk that NORI will start developing rare metals on their site without official regulations. Then the international community will not have legal tools to control these activities and track the potential harm they can cause to the world’s oceans. At the same time, maritime law expert Pradip Singh insists that ISA should not rush – this is a precedent, he says, which will be considered a model for all similar projects in the future. The future of deep-sea mining for all of humanity is at stake, warns Singh, so the matter should be approached with utmost care.
NORI is not the only company that is preparing to get to work. To date, the Federal Agency for Mineral Resources has issued 31 licenses for conducting testing operations in ocean depths. The total area of the zones that these operations will affect is over 1.5 million square kilometers, which is comparable to the size of Mongolia. Among the 23 countries that have been granted permission are Russia, South Korea, Germany, Poland, France, India, Japan, and the UK.
China has the most licenses – a whopping five. This country is a leader in the extraction and processing of rare metals on land, and now Beijing is striving to consolidate its positions in the ocean as well. It was China that showed interest in one of the first topics – it began preparing for deep-water research back in the late 1980s, and in 1990 a special institute was created in the country to study ocean resource extraction. The Chinese government even declared funding for deep-water research a matter of national security and a priority for economic development, which gave state-owned enterprises in this sector the right to take out loans from banks at minimal rates. Thanks to this, local companies now have a technological advantage over competitors from other countries, for example, they have more modern equipment.
Chapter Two. How deep-sea mining harms the ocean?
And who lives at the very, very bottom?
Scientists’ knowledge of the ocean is still incomplete, but we can already assert that metal deposits are not the only treasure hidden at the bottom. The conditions there are extreme: the water temperature is close to zero, the pressure can reach up to a thousand bars (like having several elephants standing on a single toe), there is no light, and sounds are almost absent. And yet, there is life at the bottom, and it is amazing – it is not at all like what we are used to seeing.
Scientists first discovered deep-sea creatures in the 1870s. 100 years later, humanity was able to understand how they survive: it turned out that they do not need photosynthesis, and therefore, light as well. Deep-sea fish and other organisms obtain energy through chemosynthesis. That is, they assimilate carbon dioxide by oxidizing inorganic compounds and communicate and orient themselves in space using light and sound radiation.
The diversity of life forms that have adapted to harsh underwater conditions is amazing. On the ocean floor, you can come across sea cucumbers (something between a starfish and a sea urchin), squid worms with ten tentacles around their heads, and scaly sea snails that live exclusively in Indian Ocean geothermal sources. These strange creatures are of interest not only to biologists, but also to scientists of other specializations. For example, doctors: in 2018, researchers discovered that some deep-sea microorganisms and corals have antibacterial and antifungal properties, as well as substances that could help in the treatment of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Climatologists are also interested in the depths of the ocean: by studying deep-sea ocean dwellers, they hope to better understand how the Earth’s climate has changed (and is changing).
“The bottom of the ocean is not a black lifeless desert, as one might think. We know very little about the ocean’s deep-sea ecosystems, but even the little that is known to science completely refutes this stereotype,” says Olga Mironenko, author of the educational project Deep Sea Mining Simulation. It is an interactive role-playing game in which participants take on the roles of representatives of participating countries in the ISA and discuss, for example, whether a moratorium on deep-sea mining should be introduced. To create this simulation game, Olga Mironenko analyzed scientific research devoted to the depths of the ocean for about five years and also consulted with experts on the topic.
To enter into the deepwater world of unique ecosystems for mining metals in it, there are three main ways.
- Firstly, to break apart multi-layered concretions (which are formations that outwardly resemble potatoes) that are formed in seawater over millions of years and contain various metals inside. For example, the age of Pacific concretions is about two to three million years. Usually, concretions can be seen with the naked eye, but sometimes they are located in the thickness of the seabed because they have settled over millions of years. During the extraction process, a special device resembling a vacuum cleaner sucks them up, breaks them apart, and excess water and solid rock are dumped back into the ocean.
- The second way is to break off pieces from underwater mountains that contain polymetallic sulfides and cobalt crusts. Such underwater formations also form over millions of years and resemble the familiar mountains on land.
- The third one is to destroy the so-called black smokers. These are hydrothermal vents in the form of pipes that were discovered relatively recently, 20 years ago by scientists (even the BBC dedicated a documentary to the discovery). Rare species of invertebrates inhabit the “black smokers,” and the pipes themselves are formed from metal sulfides.
No technology can be considered harmless, insists Olga Mironenko – no matter what mining companies may say: “All three methods are a sure path to the destruction of deep-sea oceanic ecosystems that have been formed over millions of years.” Her point is proven by an experiment sponsored by the German government at the end of the 20th century. Researchers dug several grooves eight meters wide at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near Peru to see what would happen. Even 30 years later, the experimental site remains semi-abandoned: the composition of the ecosystem’s participants has changed significantly, and some species have disappeared. The full restoration of microbial communities near the grooves could take about 50 years, according to researchers. And most likely, such crude intervention as mining for minerals on the bottom will also lead to irreversible changes in ecosystems. After all, everything at the depths happens extremely slowly: for example, only a couple of particles of sediment (dust, or dead fish particles) can reach the ocean floor in a year.
“The same ‘smokers’ who are now willing to break up ocean ridges for batteries and gadgets were a revolution in biology 20 years ago, and scientists are still studying them,” says Olga Mironenko. “Ocean ridges are populated by an endemic fauna, which means it is unique to this area. Thus, by destroying one ridge, we can potentially destroy unique species. Will they be found elsewhere? We do not know.” Deep-sea mining devices will not only literally destroy the habitat of underwater organisms, but will also fill the seabed with blinding light and clouds of sediment. They will hang on the seafloor for long periods of time, extending tens and hundreds of kilometers. Such a cloud will significantly complicate the orientation and search for food of the inhabitants of the ocean.
- The Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, for which the International Seabed Authority has issued the most licenses for deep-sea exploration, leads in terms of biodiversity of biological species among all studied areas of the ocean floor. Analyzing an area of only 30 square kilometers, marine biologists concluded that the “ocean potatoes,” or concretions, are the only home for 85 representatives of megafauna (i.e. large animals). Sea sponges grow and develop on them, and deep-sea octopuses lay their eggs here.
There are other dangers as well. For example, when extracting metal from “black smokers”, toxic metal-containing substances are released. Their high concentration in the water can lower the level of oxygen in the environment and poison some of the fauna. Additionally, metals will accumulate more actively in fish, which can end up in fishing nets and therefore in the human body.
Noise is another factor that poses a serious threat to underwater ecosystems. Recent American research shows that sound from underwater operations can spread up to 500 kilometers from its source. It is easy to imagine that in areas where several extraction operations are being carried out, the sound wave will be even more powerful. As a result, sound can penetrate even into so-called preservation reference areas – areas that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment carefully protects from any human activity. Noise pollution can cost the lives of deep-sea organisms, whose ability to interact with their own kind and avoid predators largely depends on the cleanliness of the acoustic environment.
In addition, the ocean is one of the largest carbon reservoirs. It continuously absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in huge quantities, sending it to the bottom in the form of underwater sediments. Deep-sea mining is likely to affect this process: the excess liquid released during the extraction of concretions negatively impacts the lives of inhabitants in the upper layers of the ocean, particularly plankton, which converts carbon dioxide into carbon. Additionally, plankton is responsible for producing half of the Earth’s oxygen.
So far, scientists are unable to say exactly how human activity invading the depths of water will affect the already changing climate of the planet. But there is no doubt that it will have an impact: any intrusion into a system that has been forming for millions of years cannot but have consequences.
Chapter Three. Can the ocean be saved?
Isn’t it time to rethink the entire system of global production?
Upon closer examination, the rate of extraction of minerals from the ocean for the needs of green energy seems wrong. Let’s assume that ocean resources can really help the alternative energy market to develop – what is the cost of such a solution? The consequences of mining can be felt for decades, centuries, and even thousands of years.
Not everyone is ready to deal with these consequences, and the case of Papua New Guinea is a telling one. This island nation in the Pacific decided as far back as 2011 that it would become a pioneer in deep-sea mining and granted permission to the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals Ltd. to proceed accordingly. The first commercial operation to extract resources was planned for 2018, but human rights activists intervened – thanks to their efforts, the project was terminated before it even really began. For several years, they protested and demanded that a work plan be provided, along with expert opinions on the potential damage. As a result, the project’s largest investors decided that the reputational losses from participating in this venture outweighed any potential benefits – and withdrew from it, leaving Nautilus Minerals Ltd with a hefty debt. But the activists did not stop there and succeeded in persuading Papua New Guinea, following in the footsteps of Fiji and Vanuatu, to declare a ten-year moratorium on deep-sea mining in 2019.
12 countries are currently against deep-sea mining: New Zealand, France (which previously obtained a license to explore the seabed), Germany, Spain, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, as well as island nations Palau, Fiji, Micronesia, and Samoa. The activity of NORI – the very company that plans to be the first in the world to start mining in neutral waters in 2024 – has significantly spurred interest in the topic. Articles have been published not only in specialized publications but also in popular English-language media such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Atlantic. Corporations and banks such as BMW Group, Google, Samsung, Volvo Group, Philips, Renault Group, and Triodos Bank have joined the campaign against deep-sea mining and signed a petition calling for a temporary ban on deep-sea mining – at least until the ISA finalizes regulations and researchers are able to more accurately assess its consequences.
Supporters of the moratorium, following the scientists, refer to the precautionary principle, according to which a possible environmental threat should be prevented, even if science does not yet have solid evidence that it is actually real. The ocean depths are one such case: according to various estimates, from 80 to 95% of the deep-water territory still remains terra incognita, unexplored land for us. Therefore, objectively assessing the potential damage from mining metals in the ocean is currently impossible.
Realizing the deadlock of the existing situation, some entrepreneurs and engineers are trying to come up with a more gentle technology for mining metals from the seabed. One such project is being worked on by the startup Impossible Metals, which positions itself as a company trying to invent “ethical” metallurgy based on ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance – caring for the environment, society, and corporate values) principles. The company’s engineers are working on a technology that allows for the careful capture of polymetallic nodules rather than sucking up everything on the seabed in its path. Their deep-water robot, hovering over the ocean floor, is equipped with artificial intelligence whose task is to recognize signs of life around the ocean “potato.” Upon detecting them, the machine’s claw will not destroy the shelter of local inhabitants and will automatically move on – thus causing minimal harm to deep-sea ecosystems. The company plans to begin mass production of such robots in 2026.
However, this project also raises questions. One of the main problems is that polymetallic nodules are located not only on the surface of the ocean floor, but also buried in it. The composition of metals in the “potatoes” depends on the depth at which they are found: the closer to the surface, the more cobalt, and the deeper they are, the more lithium and nickel. In other words, a robot that only interacts with the bottom surface is not suitable for mining lithium and nickel. Moreover, any – including point – deep-sea operation creates a murky veil above the surface of the ocean floor.
And even if we imagine that a technology that is harmless to the ocean ecosystem suddenly appears, there is no guarantee that countries and mining companies will stop their activities. Most likely, deep-sea mining will simply become another industrial sector that will develop until it exhausts underwater resources. Therefore, critics of all these developments believe that the truly correct path is to completely rebuild the global economic system.
“Now many people argue that it is necessary to move away from the linear model of the economy with the concept of “extract-produce-discard-go extract again” to a cyclical model, where what is extracted is sent for production once and then for processing and new production. And so on in a cycle. Unlike some other materials – such as plastic and paper – most metals withstand an infinite number of such cycles. Humanity lazily does not take advantage of this gift,” Olga Mironenko argues.
Switching to a circular model is a big and complex topic. But in short, one of the important steps towards this goal is to reduce humanity’s dependence on metal mining by processing metal-containing devices and objects. According to Callie Babbitt, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, currently only one to five percent of rare earth metals are being recycled. Moreover, even in developed countries, the infrastructure is poorly adapted for the processing of batteries.
The modern production model does not take into account the possibility of recycling individual elements: smartphones and other gadgets are multicomposite, that is, they contain many different elements, but it is extremely difficult to separate rare metals from other fragments in them. Experts believe that the countries of the European Union will not seriously start recycling rare metals until 2040, but we are talking about components not of smartphones and other equipment, but of wind turbines and transport vehicles. Meanwhile, China is ahead of Europe in this segment as well: they are already actively recycling lithium-ion batteries and specifically purchase them from Europe and the United States for this purpose.
Some commercial companies are already designing new battery models that do not require rare metals to produce. IBM introduced one such model in 2019, and similar developments have been announced by Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen. German company Theion has created a battery made of sulfur (which replaces nickel and cobalt), for which 90% less energy is required to make than for current batteries. This battery lasts three times longer, is energy-efficient, and safe for plant workers and the environment. In addition, sulfur is a byproduct of other industrial operations and is easily recyclable. Perhaps the path to a circular economy is not as complex and extensive as previously thought.
However, while scientists and human rights activists think about the depths of the ocean, an ecological tragedy unfolds in shallow waters. Extraction at depths less than 200 meters occurs near the shore and is therefore regulated only by national legislation. The technology of such extraction differs little from deep-sea extraction. And despite the fact that processes of restoration in shallow waters occur faster than on the ocean floor, they still take decades during which a number of species can be on the brink of extinction.
In Indonesia, due to mining near the coast of Bangka Belitung, about 70% of coral reefs have already died. This, in turn, reduces populations of tuna and other fish, which are an important part of the local diet. Moreover, following Namibia and Indonesia, other countries such as Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden plan to begin shallow water mining as well.