Marine scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative have developed a web-based tool, Deep Sea Mining Watch, to allow anyone to watch vessels engaged in deep sea mining activities from anywhere in the world.
“We have tech that can track taxis, potholes, and football players, it’s about time we also had a few tracking tools to more carefully monitor our ocean life support system,” Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and a professor of marine biology at UC Santa Barbara, said in a statement.
Deep sea mining is relatively new, but it’s exactly what it sounds like: mineral extraction from the ocean floor, at depths ranging from 800 to 6,000 meters (about 2,600 to 20,000 feet). Naturally, the process involves large oceangoing vessels, which are required by law to carry transmitters that broadcast their location and help avoid collisions at sea. McCauley and the team of scientists behind Deep Sea Mining Watch have already used the tool to comb through the mountain of global vessel data generated by all the world’s ships in order to extract high-resolution GPS tracks showing where mining activities are underway.
“You wouldn’t miss it if a strip mine popped up in your neighborhood,” McCauley said. “The challenge with deep sea mining has been that it is starting in many of our ocean backyards — but nobody has been watching. This is too important to continue to be an out of sight, out of mind industry.”
There are numerous risks associated with deep sea mining, according to McCauley. “We are proposing driving 300 ton waterproof robotic bulldozers through ecosystems that are like undersea redwood forests,” he said.
It has been estimated that some deep sea ecosystems could take centuries to recover from such large-scale disturbance, as many deep sea species grow slowly, live long lives, and are therefore quite fragile.
The world’s first deep sea mine
Canadian company Nautilus Minerals is hoping to open the world’s first deep sea mine off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Bismarck Sea in early 2018. The process for mining the seabed is so new that it is essentially still in development, but the basic idea is to use remote-controlled vehicles to cut up the ocean floor and bring copper, gold, manganese, nickel, and other minerals up to the surface.
Late last year, when Nautilus first unveiled the machinery it has developed to accomplish this feat, CNBC described exactly what it entails:
“The auxiliary cutter begins the work by grinding down the seafloor to make it level enough for the second piece of equipment, the bulk cutter. That machine grinds the resulting slurry up fine enough for the collection machine to suck it up before it is sent to a ship on the surface.
On the ship, the water is separated from the rock, particles larger than 8 microns are filtered out and the water is pumped back to the seafloor.”
Many other companies from around the world are eagerly watching to see if Nautilus’ deep sea mining venture in the Bismarck Sea, which the company calls Solwara 1, is a success. Exploration licenses already issued to these companies cover more than 1.5 million square kilometers (about 580,000 square miles) of the Pacific Ocean floor in addition to “vast areas” of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, according to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Foundation.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign says that governance over deep sea mining is currently lacking: “This [deep sea mining] 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.”
Nautilus’ Solwara 1 is staunchly opposed by local communities who say their seas are being used as a testing ground for an experimental mining process — and that the company’s own annual report for 2015, released this past June, concedes that the environmental impacts of the project are unknown.
“Our coastal communities live only 30 kilometers from the proposed mine site and our fishermen use the area around it daily,” Janet Tokupep of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, which represents a number of communities in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, said in a statement. “The serious liabilities associated with the risks of Solwara 1 make it a disastrous investment.”
Deep sea mining activities underway across the globe
Deep Sea Mining Watch lets users zoom in on areas where vessels are prospecting in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. UC Santa Barbara’s McCauley and his colleagues have already documented a Russian-flagged vessel sailing across the Pacific in search of minerals in five claims belonging to the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, as well as a ship exploring one of China’s claims east of the Mariana Trench.
In addition to the direct damage done to marine ecosystems when the ocean floor is ground into gravel and silt before being sucked up to mining vessels on the surface, deep sea mining can have other serious effects, according to the Deep Sea Mining Watch team. It can produce large sediment plumes that smother sea life, for instance, and it generates noise pollution that harms marine mammals like whales and dolphins. On top of that, it may also disrupt the ability of the deep sea to store carbon that would otherwise be in Earth’s atmosphere contributing to climate change.
If the world decides to go ahead with mining the oceans, McCauley and team say, we should first study the biology of habitats being proposed for mining, and we should do so before any more seabed mining claims are issued.
“We need to be doing our biodiversity surveys in front of these underwater bulldozers, not behind them,” McCauley said.
Additionally, the team says we should stop granting new claims until marine protected areas informed by the best science available have been established in every mining region. An organization called the International Seabed Authority is in charge of both mining claims and protected areas on the high seas — ocean areas outside of any national jurisdiction, where biodiversity and minerals are considered common heritage global resources — but protected areas have not yet been established in many regions with ocean mining claims.
Lastly, we should carefully study the effects at every stage as the deep sea mining process continues to be developed, the scientists urge.
“This is simply something we’ve never done in the oceans,” McCauley said, “we need to carefully observe what intended and unintended consequences it will bring and be ready to adapt our mining management plans based upon what we learn.”