The Push to Mine the Seafloor Threatens the Vast Ecosystem of the Deep Sea
Estimated to be worth billions to even trillions of dollars, the deep sleep floor accumulates precious and prized metals. Much of it lies in plain view.
Many mining operations around the world are exploring strategies to access this treasure, claiming that mining in the deep sea is much more sustainable and less harmful than doing so on land. Mining explorations that have been approved by the International Seabed Authority, which regulates mining in international waters, cover more than 500,000 square miles, about twice the size of Texas.
The deep-sea, once thought to be a barren and lifeless wasteland, has recently revealed thousand-year-old corals, microbes that can treat cancer and infectious diseases, and hydrothermal vent fields of monumental proportions, which creatures convert sulfur and methane into energy, offering a glimpse at the origins of life on earth. Making this feat much more difficult, the challenge now becomes how to bring the materials to the surface without inflicting damage to the ocean environment.
Deep-sea biologists originally believed that any resulting harm caused by deep-sea mining would be primarily seen at the bottom of the sea. However, nearly all of the environmental impact studies on deep-sea mining found that this is not the case. While the aftermath on the seafloor is visible for decades, seabeds have been found to still be denuded 30 years following experimental mining machines passing by, mining will also have pronounced and debilitating impacts that will be felt throughout the deepwater column. The deepwater column extends 600 feet below the surface to the seafloor, where the extraction takes place.
Moreover, the minerals that miners are seeking form extremely slowly in the deep ocean, with growth rates of a few millimeters per million years. To put this into perspective a nodule the size of a tennis ball lying on the seafloor that is comprised of prized rare-earth metals could be more than 14-million years old. And while the ecosystem might recover to some extent after a hundred years, the mineral resources will never be replaced. Mining may serve present-day consumers but it leaves environmental consequences for their children and grandchildren.
Frequently the effects on the ocean itself are overlooked when assessing mining impacts. The sea is not just made up of the seafloor alone, but also what lies above it: roughly 13,000 feet of water on average, more than twice as deep as the deepest point of the Grand Canyon and including more than 90% of the planet’s life-sustaining habitats. This deep mid-water ecosystem - which includes everything from microbes and worms to jellyfish and giant squid - is extremely important and linked to us in many ways that we may not even know the extent to.
When a nodule is extracted and vacuumed from the seafloor, it is pumped to a surface ship through a pipeline. The minerals are removed, and then the muddy, silty, toxin-enriched fluid is pumped back into the sea often referred to as a “dewatering plume.” Heavier particles sink to the seafloor but these must first pass through thousands of feet of water before settling. Moreover, the fine silt will drift for miles and months in the ocean’s currents. It is extremely evident that the impact this plume will have on open-water ecosystems will be severe, varied, and global in scale.
Decades of research on the deep-sea has taught us that organisms that reside in the deep-sea have adaptations that allow them to be susceptible to these mining impacts. A majority of them feed on the small particles that fall from the surface. This process helps to contribute to the flow of carbon from the atmosphere to deep sediments in the ocean, which helps to regulate the earth’s climate. But since the food web is complex and completely interconnected, any toxins in the environment or diet of the fish we consume will end up on in our bodies.
Additionally, as a result of mining, the animals that reside in the deep-sea eat mouthfuls of poisonous dirt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; respiring through clogged gills, and squinting through a haze of mud to communicate, these organisms are struggling to survive.
Predicted discharge rates tell us that a single mining ship will release between two million and 3.5 million cubic feet of effluent every day - that’s enough to fill a fleet of tanker trucks 15 miles long. Now multiply that by the 30-year long lifetime of a mining lease. The most important aspect to recognize is that these sediment plumes will not respect the permit boundaries. Regulatory buffer zones typically extend 50 nautical miles - this is completely insufficient to protect reefs or fisheries from these sediments which are projected to travel hundreds of miles farther.
The companies that stand to profit from mining are within the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia. All of whom are geographically, politically, and economically removed from the small island nations which will bear the brunt of the aftermath. While government leaders may welcome mining for economic gain, it is the indigenous communities and environments on these islands that will suffer the lasting consequences of seafloor mining.
Historically the deep sea has been considered remote and largely devoid of life, and to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb our pollution. In reality, these deepwater ecosystems are fragile, diverse, and connected to us. Mining operations must reduce their impact on the whole of the ocean and not just the seafloor. The dazzling treasure of oceanic biodiversity has unfathomable value as well.
Our financial decisions can either help transform the economy or preserve the status quo. The way we spend, and moreover the way we invest, have a massive impact on policy change and government decisions. As an investor, you have the agency to support firms that put our ocean’s health above profits, companies that raise the bar through their climate efforts.
Let’s transform our economy into one that aids in the quality of our planet and it’s oceans. You can make a small step in doing so by investing in Newday's Ocean Health Portfolio. Our active support will yield benefits for years to come.
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