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Deep Sea Mining off the Coasts of Pacific Islands: A Different Ballgame

December 07, 2016|

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Sulfide and crust mining may have unforeseen environmental effects that will damage life on Pacific Islands. Image by Sarah Fahmy. Papua New Guinea, 2016.

Sulfide and crust mining may have unforeseen environmental effects that will damage life on Pacific Islands. Image by Sarah Fahmy. Papua New Guinea, 2016.

The size of the super dome. That’s how large a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the ocean is. Extinct hydrothermal vents and ferromanganese crusts are future targets for deep sea mining, like polymetallic nodules.

Vents and crusts are found at much shallower depths, crusts at about 3,500 feet and vents at about 3,000–5,000 feet, because they arise near volcanically active places and where tectonic plates are moving apart. Crusts are cobalt-rich and extinct vents become massive sulfide systems with deposits of copper, gold, zinc, and silver.

Due to their nature, both vents and crusts are typically found within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Pacific island countries and would also require a different mining technique than nodules. In order to mine these massive deposits, “[the mining would be] equivalent to destroying a concrete super dome that is 10 stories high and flattening it with a saw,” explained John Wiltshire, Associate Chairman of the University of Hawaii’s Department of Ocean and Resources Engineering with 40 years’ experience in the mining industry.

Nautilus Minerals is the closest to making mining massive sulfide systems a reality. Nautilus Minerals did not respond to requests for an interview, but according to their website, Nautilus Minerals launched the world's largest commercial exploration program for massive sulfides in March 2007. This program included extensive environmental studies, sampling, and production development on Solwara 1, a site 18 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Nautilus Minerals has invested millions of dollars in deep sea mining technology and seems to be on track to begin their operation within the next couple of years. Because they are working in the exclusive economic zone of Papua New Guinea and not in international waters, the company deals with the Papua New Guinean government.

This worries Jeff Drazen, the chair of the Biological Oceanography Division at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, his cheery Hawaiian button-up not reflecting his current mood. He is cautious about underwater mining, saying, “Right now, the impression I get is a lot of mining companies are taking advantage of the poverty in developing Pacific island nations and exploiting them for what will be long-lasting environmental harm for these countries.”

It is difficult to predict the future of underwater mining. If Nautilus Minerals begins their mining operation in Solwara 1 for massive sulfides, it seems as if the industry would begin in the next few years. From there, it would take anywhere from 20 to 40 years for the industry to be of any significant size.

Is underwater mining good or bad? We can all acknowledge the need for minerals in order to make the technology we use in everyday life, like steel, batteries, computers and cellphones—and mining is a way to get these resources. But at the same time, we cannot circumvent the environmental destruction and pollution mining creates.

Regardless of when mining the deep sea begins, researchers and scientists from the ABYSSLINE project, the Hawaii Underwater Research Lab (HURL), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) are exploring the deep sea with remote operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, and submersibles.

They do not know if there will be enough time to explore the seafloor before mining begins, but they are doing all they can. And since mining is market-based, like any other industry, if metal prices tank, it will not make any sense to pursue deep sea mining. And the polymetallic nodules at the bottom of the ocean will remain untouched. At least for a little while longer.