Mining in the Ocean

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Manganese nodules sought by mining companies

Large areas of the ocean floor are covered with potentially mineable — and potentially extremely valuable — metals. For decades, companies have been trying to figure out how to mine these nodules; so far, though, they’ve been able to do only exploratory work. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Scattered across the sea floor are great riches. Mostly, these take the shape of lumps that resemble blackened potatoes. The lumps, known formally as polymetallic nodules, consist of layers of ore that have built up around bits of marine debris, such as ancient shark teeth. The process by which the metals accumulate is not entirely understood; however, it’s thought to be exceedingly slow. A single spud-size nugget might take some three million years to form. It has been estimated that, collectively, the nodules on the bottom of the ocean contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land. They contain six thousand times as much tellurium, a metal that’s even rarer than the rare earths. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021; January 3 & 10, 2022]

“Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that the sooner it starts the better. Manufacturing wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar panels, and batteries for energy storage requires resources, often scarce ones. (Tellurium is a key component in thin-film solar panels.) “The reality is that the clean-energy transition is not possible without taking billions of tons of metal from the planet,” Gerard Barron, the chairman of the Metals Company, one of the businesses that holds permits from the I.S.A., observed a few months ago. Seafloor nodules, he said, “offer a way to dramatically reduce” the environmental impact of extracting these tons.

“Marine scientists argue, though, that the potential costs of deep-ocean mining outweigh the benefits. They point out that the ocean floor is so difficult to access that most of its inhabitants are probably still unknown, and their significance to the functioning of the oceans is ill-understood. In the meantime, seabed mining, which would take place in complete darkness, thousands of feet under water, will, they say, be almost impossible to monitor. In September, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which compiles the “red list” of endangered species, called for a global moratorium on deep-sea mining. The group issued a statement raising concerns that “bio-diversity loss will be inevitable if deep-sea mining is permitted to occur,” and “that the consequences for ocean ecosystem function are unknown.”

Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium

Gold in the Ocean

Yes, there is gold in the ocean. But its difficult and expensive to extract. Gold in the ocean is so dilute that its concentration is on the order of parts per trillion. The ROV Deep Discoverer has been sent to investigate the geomorphology of Block Canyon in the Atlantic Ocean to see what can be found in the water and land forms there, among other things. [Source: NOAA].

Ocean waters do hold gold, but it's difficult to say exactly how much. If you were hoping make your fortune mining the sea, consider this: Gold in the ocean is so dilute that its concentration is very small. One study found there is only about one gram of gold for every 100 million metric tons of ocean water in the Atlantic and north Pacific.

There is also (undissolved) gold in/on the seafloor. The ocean, however, is deep, meaning that gold deposits are a mile or two underwater. And once you reach the ocean floor, you’ll find that gold deposits are also encased in rock that must be mined through. Not easy. Currently, there is no a cost-effective way to mine or extract gold from the ocean to make a profit.

History of Mining in the Ocean

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “The first attempts to harvest this submerged wealth were undertaken” in the 1970s. In the summer of 1974, a drillship purportedly belonging to Howard Hughes — the Hughes Glomar Explorer — anchored north of Midway Atoll, ostensibly to bring up nodules from the depths. In fact, the ship was operated by the C.I.A., which was trying to raise a sunken Soviet submarine. But then, in a curious twist, a real company called Ocean Minerals leased the Glomar to collect nodules from the seabed west of Baja California. The president of the company likened the exercise to “standing on the top of the Empire State Building, trying to pick up small stones on the sidewalk using a long straw, at night.” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

one mining method

“After the Glomar expeditions, interest in seabed mining waned. It’s now waxing again. As one recent report put it, “The Pacific Ocean is the scene of a new wild west.” Thirty companies have received permits from the I.S.A. to explore the Area. Most are looking to slurp up the nodules; others are hoping to excavate stretches of the ocean floor that are rich in cobalt and copper. Permits to begin commercial mining could be issued within a few years.

Some of the mining is in the form of dredging. Dredging is the act of removing silt and other material from the bottom of bodies of water. It is a routine necessity in waterways around the world because sedimentation — the natural process of sand and silt washing downstream — gradually fills channels and harbors. In the ocean, it is very destructive process that involves scraping up what is on the sea floor and putting it somewhere else.

International Seabed Authority and Undersea Mining

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “The International Seabed Authority is headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, in a building that looks a bit like a prison and a bit like a Holiday Inn. The I.S.A., which has been described as “chronically overlooked” and is so obscure that even many Jamaicans don’t know it exists, has jurisdiction over roughly half the globe. “Under international law, countries control the waters within two hundred miles of their shores. Beyond that, the oceans and all they contain are considered “the common heritage of mankind.” This realm, which encompasses nearly a hundred million square miles of seafloor, is referred to in I.S.A.-speak simply as the Area. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

Permits for actual mining can’t be granted until the I.S.A. comes up with a set of regulations governing the process, a task it’s been working on for more than twenty years. To apply for a mining permit, companies need to team up with a country that’s party to unclos. (Most of the nations in the world are, but not, significantly, the United States.) And this is where Nauru comes in. It’s sponsoring a company called Nauru Ocean Resources, which is a subsidiary of the Metals Company, a Canadian firm. The Metals Company wants to mine a nodule-rich region of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. In June, not long before the Metals Company went public as a “special purpose acquisition company,” Nauru notified the I.S.A. that it was invoking what’s become known as the “two-year rule.” The rule — which is actually part of an annex to unclos — says that, “if a request is made by a State,” the I.S.A. “shall” finalize the regulations within two years. As it has now been six months since Nauru invoked the rule, this leaves just eighteen months for the work to be completed. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, January 3 & 10, 2022]

another mining method

“The I.S.A. has been assigned the task not just of issuing the permits for seabed mining but also of drafting the regulations to govern the practice. These regulations have yet to be finalized, so it’s unclear how stringent they will be. (The final rules are supposed to be in place before commercial mining commences, though the Metals Company has threatened to try to start without them.) Many marine scientists argue that because deep-sea ecosystems are so fragile — and operations that are miles below the surface so difficult to monitor — the only safe way to proceed is not to” but scientists .”acknowledges that the I.S.A. is unlikely to be swayed. Daniel Jones, a researcher at the British National Oceanography Centre, says, “Even if we found unicorns living on the seafloor, I don’t think that would necessarily stop mining.” Meanwhile, assuming that mining does go forward, it’s been suggested that faux nodules could be manufactured and dropped by ship into the deep ocean, to replace those being refashioned into batteries. The perfect vessel for this task would have been the Glomar; unfortunately, a few years ago it was sold for scrap.

“In mid-December 2021, the I.S.A. held a meeting at its headquarters in Kingston. Because of covid, many countries didn’t send delegates, and some that did objected to the two-year timetable, on the ground that it couldn’t responsibly be met. Nevertheless, Michael Lodge, the I.S.A.’s secretary-general, said in a press release dated December 14th that the authority would forge ahead: “We have a busy schedule in the coming two years, but I am confident that our common purpose will enable us to make the expected progress.”

“Both Nauru and the Metals Company have portrayed the effort to mine the seabed as essential to cutting carbon emissions. Clean-energy technologies such as electric-car batteries, at least in their current form, require metals, including cobalt, that are found in the nodules in relatively high concentrations. “Nauru is part of a pioneering venture that could soon power the world’s green economy,” a video produced by the country’s government declares. “We’re in a quest for a more sustainable future,” Gerard Barron, the C.E.O. of the Metals Company, says in the same video.

“Critics maintain that the very structure of the I.S.A. biases it toward mining. To finance itself, the body depends on fees from companies doing exploratory work and on contributions from member states. Many member states seem to have stopped paying; a report from 2020 listed almost sixty countries that owe at least two years’ contributions. The I.S.A. is expected to receive a percentage of the profits from seabed mining if it moves forward. The potential for a conflict of interest would seem to be pretty basic. (The I.S.A. said that it could not comment at this time.) “Countries have not really come to grips with the reality, which is that their hand is being forced by this two-year rule,” Duncan Currie, an international lawyer who advises the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, another group that has called for a moratorium on seabed mining, said in a recent interview. “And so, come July, 2023, a decision is going to have to be made as to whether to go down what is a very one-way street toward deep-sea mining at the enormous expense of the marine environment, or whether they’re going to continue to take a cautious view. And, unfortunately, it is an either-or situation.”

Environmental Costs of Ocean Mining

cost of deep sea mining

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “But seabed mining poses environmental hazards of its own. The more scientists learn about the depths, the more extraordinary the discoveries. The ocean floor is populated by creatures that thrive under conditions that seem impossibly extreme. There is, for example, a ghostly pale deep-sea octopus that lays its eggs only on the stalks of nodule-dwelling sponges. Remove the nodules in order to melt them down and it will, presumably, take millions of years for new ones to form. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

“Edith Widder is a marine biologist, a MacArthur Fellow, and the author of “Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea” (Random House). Widder is an expert on bioluminescence, a topic that she became interested in after nearly going blind. In 1970, when she was a freshman in college, she had to have surgery for a broken back. The surgery went fine, but afterward she started hemorrhaging. Her heart stopped beating, and she was resuscitated. This happened again, and then a third time. Blood leaked into both of her eyes, blocking her retinas. “My visual world was swirling darkness with occasional glimpses of meaningless light,” she recalls. Eventually, she regained her vision, but she no longer took sight for granted. “We believe we see the world as it is,” she writes. “We don’t. We see the world as we need to see it to make our existence possible.”

“Helen Scales, a British marine biologist and author the book, “The Brilliant Abyss”, like Widder, worries that the bottom of the ocean will be wrecked before many of the most marvellous creatures living there are even identified. “The frontier story has always been one of destruction and loss,” she writes. “It is naïve to assume that the process would play out any differently in the deep.” Indeed, she argues, the depths are particularly ill-suited to disturbance because, owing to a scarcity of food, creatures tend to grow and reproduce extremely slowly. “Vital habitat is created by corals and sponges that live for millennia.”[Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

Nauru and Deep Sea Mining

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “It’s rare that a tiny country like Nauru gets to determine the course of world events. But, for tangled reasons, this rare event is playing out right now. If Nauru has its way, enormous bulldozers could descend on the largest, still mostly untouched ecosystem in the world — the seafloor — sometime within the next few years. Hundreds of marine scientists have signed a statement warning that this would be an ecological disaster resulting in damage “irreversible on multi--generational timescales.” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, January 3 & 10, 2022]

“Nauru, which is home to ten thousand people and occupies an eight-square-mile island northeast of Papua New Guinea, acquired its outsized influence owing to an obscure clause of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Under -unclos, most of the seabed — an area of roughly a hundred million square miles — is considered the “common heritage of mankind.” This vast area is administered by a group called the International Seabed Authority, which is based in Kingston, Jamaica.

“Nauru, for its part, has a long history of disastrous business dealings. Starting in the early twentieth century, the island was stripped of most of its phosphate deposits, a process that reduced a good part of it to a wasteland. In 1968, Nauru, which had been administered by Australia, attained independence. The country used its wealth, which was still being generated by phosphate mining, to invest in a series of money-losing ventures. Now it is banking on seabed mining. Should the rest of the world allow Nauru to dictate the timetable for deciding how the seabed will be governed? The question would seem to answer itself. The noted oceanographer Sylvia Earle has called the attempt to carve up the ocean floor into mining claims the “biggest land grab in the history of humankind.” And yet, unless a lot of other nations finally decide to focus on the issue, this is what appears likely to happen.

Nodular mining operatiojn

“Today, with the phosphate mostly mined out and the refugees mostly resettled, Nauru is betting on nodules. To engage in deep-sea exploration and mining, a company must be sponsored by a country that’s party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (The U.S. is one of the few nations that has not ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, because of conservative opposition in the Senate.) Nauru has teamed up with the Metals Company, which is based in Canada, to explore a region of the Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, west of Mexico. “We are proud that Pacific nations have been leaders in the deep-sea minerals industry,” a statement co-authored by Nauru’s representative to the International Seabed Authority recently declared. The deal, it’s estimated, could eventually bring the country more than a hundred million dollars a year. Alternatively, the arrangement could prove even more disastrous than the da Vinci musical. At one point, Nauru officials expressed concern to the I.S.A. that, if a sponsoring nation were held liable for damages arising from a mining operation, it could “face losing more than it actually has.”

Norway Finds a Treasure Trove of Minerals in Its Seabed

Angely Mercado wrote in Gizmodo: A recent study from the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate found large amounts of valuable metals and minerals on the seabed of the country’s continental shelf, Reuters reported. The rare earth metals, copper, and other materials would be a boon to Europe’s ability to produce energy transition technologies, but environmentalists are worried about the potential impacts of mining in the area. [Source: Angely Mercado, Gizmodo, Tue, January 31, 2023]

The Directorate’s study found that there were more than 40 million tons of copper in remote areas of the Norwegian Sea and Greenland Sea. The study also discovered cobalt, magnesium, and niobium. All of these are considered critical raw materials in Europe because they are used to produce consumer items across several industries. There are also deposits of rare earth elements, including neodymium and dysprosium, Reuters reported. This is an especially critical find because European countries import most of their rare metals from other nations.

Drilling for these materials could help fuel green technologies, including EVs and batteries to store solar and wind energy. “Costly, rare minerals such as neodymium and dysprosium are extremely important for magnets in wind turbines and the engines in electric vehicles,” the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate said in a statement, according to Reuters. The Petroleum Directorate also said that there are enough materials in these seabed deposits to cover years of global metal consumption, Sky News reported.

Environmental groups in the country are asking the government to pause exploration for now. They want further studies to understand how mining will affect marine life along the seabed. A consultation letter from Norway’s Institute of Marine Research pointed out that while the Directorate’s study gave estimates for how much of the precious metals are available, studies could be conducted to figure out how much of those materials could be extracted without causing major environmental disruption. The Institute also worries that there may be undiscovered species in the ocean, which could also be affected by mineral exploration.

This news comes just a few weeks after nearby Sweden discovered what could be some of the largest known rare earth metal deposits in Europe. LKAB, a state-owned Swedish mining company, said that it had found over a million metric tons of rare earth oxides. “This is the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in our part of the world, and it could become a significant building block for producing the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enable the green transition,” Jan Moström, LKAB president and CEO, said in an online statement about the discovery.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, NOAA

Text Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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