Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals has staked its reputation on bringing off the world's first deep sea mining (DSM) operation. The Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea has been marked out as the testing ground for this unprecedented technology.
Many other companies − from Japan, China, Korea, the UK, Canada, USA, Germany, Australia and the Russian Federation − are waiting to see if Nautilus can successfully bring metals from sea floor to smelter before taking the plunge themselves. They’ve already taken out exploration licences covering over 1.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean floor. In addition, exploration licences now also cover vast areas of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
This DSM exploration frenzy is occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little known ecosystems of the deep sea. It is also occurring without meaningful participation by the communities who will be affected by DSM in decision-making. Furthermore, the limited scientific research conducted to date provides no assurance that the health of coastal communities and the fisheries on which they depend can be guaranteed.
Three forms of DSM have attracted the attention of companies – the mining of cobalt crusts (CRC), polymetallic nodules, and deposits of seafloor massive sulphides (SMS) also known as Polymetallic Sulphides. It is the latter which is arguably the most alluring to miners - with high grades of zinc, copper, silver, gold, lead and rare earths. The mining of seafloor massive sulphides is also likely to be the most contentious: causing the greatest environmental impact. Occurrences of other minerals include phosphate and metalliferous sediments.
Deep-sea hydrothermal vents, found along mid-ocean ridges and back-arc basins, support some of the rarest and most unique ecological communities known to science. Here organisms derive their energy from sulphide chemicals in extremely hot, mineralized vent fluids. Most species discovered at vents are new to science, and the vents support communities with extremely high biomass relative to other deep-sea habitats. Ecosystem Impacts: Mining of hydrothermal vents would destroy an extensive patch of productive vent habitat, including thousands of vent chimneys, killing virtually all of the attached organisms. The extent of the impacts to vents and other seafloor habitats mined will inevitably be severe at the site scale. Mining is also expected to alter venting frequency and characteristics on surrounding seafloor areas, affecting ecological communities far beyond the mined site. Life forms destroyed may well be endemic, meaning that mining may destroy species before they are even identified.
Cobalt-rich Ferromanganese Crusts precipitate onto nearly all rock surfaces in the deep ocean that are free of sediment (mainly seamounts), gradually building layers 1-260mm thick at a rate of 1-5mm per million years. Crusts of economic interest occur at depths of about 800—2500m on seamounts, mainly in the Pacific Ocean. Ecosystem Impacts: Technologically, the mining of cobalt crusts is more complex than manganese nodules, and environmentally probably even more damaging. Cobalt-rich crust mining would involve cutting 5-8cm of the crust on the top of seamounts, and could thus have a significant impact on corals, sponges and other benthic organisms associated with seamounts. The sediment plumes created could also impact these and other suspension feeders 'downstream' from the mining operations.
Manganese nodules are mineral precipitates of manganese and iron oxides. They occur over extensive areas of abyssal plains at depths of 4000-6500m. They grow extremely slowly: several centimetres every million years. Nodules contain nickel, copper, and cobalt, as well as traces of other metals (notably rare earth elements) important to high-tech industries. Ecosystem Impacts: The potential scale of the impacts of this type of mining is huge. In the central eastern Pacific alone, an area of exploratory mining contracts stretching across several thousand kilometres of the deep seabed have been issued.