With profitable land-based deposits of precious minerals dwindling around the globe, corporations are turning to the deep sea to source minerals for next-generation products like cellphones, laptops, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles
Their target? A 2.3-million-square-mile deep-sea region called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ). In waters spanning in depth from 12,000 to 18,000 feet, polymetallic nodules lay scattered across the sea floor. Averaging the size of a potato, each nodule contains rich minerals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements.
Polymetallic nodules, such as this one recovered by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre, can take more than 10 million years to form. (Photo: GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre)
The presence of these nodules is of massive international interest, with companies from more than 16 countries currently eyeing the CCZ for future exploitation. A 2012 survey by a team of Japanese scientists estimated a staggering "80 billion to 100 billion metric tons of rare-earth deposits in the Pacific Ocean," eclipsing "a thousand times" the potential of onshore recoverable rare earth reserves.
As you might expect, the environmental implications for such a deep-sea mining rush have not gone unnoticed. "This mining, when it occurs, is going to be just massive in scale," Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, told the Huffington Post. "It probably will have the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet."
Complicating the problem is that little information is known about the species and tightly-linked ecosystems found at these depths. This year alone, expeditions to remote, previously unexplored deep-sea areas of the world have turned up everything from a ghost octopus to a beautiful, mysterious purple orb.
Elevating the need for restraint in exploiting the CCZ is a new study published in Scientific Reports that details the unexpected discovery of an abundance of creatures living in the proposed mining zone.
"We found that this exploration claim area harbors one of the most diverse communities of megafauna [animals over 2 cm in size] to be recorded at abyssal depths in the deep sea," said lead author Diva Amon, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) told Science Daily.
In an interesting twist, the researchers discovered that the highest concentrations of deep-sea marine life occurred in those areas with the highest nodule abundance. Furthermore, it appeared that the species, half of which proved new to science, are dependent on the polymetallic nodules themselves.
"The biggest surprises of this study were the high diversity, the large numbers of new species and the fact that more than half of the species seen rely on the nodules — the very part of the habitat that will be removed during the mining process," added Amon.
Because the nodules take millions of years to form, eradicating them from the environment could prove devastating to the deep-sea biome.
"The rationale for exploiting minerals in the deep sea is based on their perceived current monetary value," famed marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle wrote recently. "The living systems that will be destroyed are perceived to have no monetary value. Will decisions about use of the natural world continue to be based on the financial advantage for a small number of people despite risks to systems that underpin planetary stability — systems that support human survival?"
As it stands today, the momentum to begin deep-sea mining projects in the CCZ as soon as 2018 continues to grow. With more published studies from the ABYSSLINE team and others forthcoming, the evidence is growing that extreme care must be taken in disturbing this untouched ecosystem.
To lend your backing to a moratorium on the practice until conservation regulations are in place to protect the seafloor, sign this official petition (already nearly 800,000 names strong) here.