Andreas Späth

Mining the final frontier

2011-07-27 09:08

It’s no longer true that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the world’s oceans. In fact, depending on technological developments and international metal prices, the seafloor is likely to be the target for a major new mining boom in the not too distant future. While oil, gas and diamonds are currently extracted in the relatively shallow, near-shore waters of the continental shelf, this new race to the bottom will aim for mineral deposits located beneath thousands of metres of water. But what about the environmental consequences?

Black smokers, frozen methane and metal-bearing mud

The most promising deepwater exploration sites are fields of so-called hydrothermal vents that are associated with high concentrations of zinc, copper, nickel, silver and gold. Somewhat analogous to geysers on land, these underwater chimneys are sites where hot water that has been circulating through layers of rock and leaching minerals and metals from them, emerges and precipitates metal-rich deposits. Due to the colour of their emanations some of these vents are referred to as “black smokers”.

Other potential mining targets include:

• Manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel found in knobbly, potato-sized rocks, or “polymetallic nodules”, scattered liberally on parts of the seafloor.

• Extensive mud deposits in the Pacific, which a group of Japanese scientists identified earlier this month as a huge source of rare earth elements. More than 95% of the world supply of this suite of highly strategic metals, crucial in many high-tech industrial applications from computers and mobile phones to lasers and superconductors, currently comes from China.

• Methane hydrates, a form of natural gas trapped in solid, ice-like water structures typically found in sediments at water depths of 500 metres and more.

Deepwater pioneers

The leader in the field is a $300m Canadian outfit called Nautilus Minerals, in which our own Anglo American has an 11.1% share. Having been granted a mining permit by the government of Papua New Guinea, the company plans to strip-mine a hydrothermal vent field in the Bismarck Sea using state-of-the-art remote controlled equipment. They are also pursuing similar interests in Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

In May last year, the Chinese government submitted plans to explore for mineral prospects near Madagascar to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the agency charged with regulating seafloor mining under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Japanese, French, Indian, Chinese, Russian, German and Korean interests have contracted areas in the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the ISA for polymetallic nodule exploration and Japan has recently estimated the value of seabed mineral resources in its own territorial waters at $3.1 trillion.

Environmental impact

Marine scientists and environmentalists have started to ring alarm bells about the potentially destructive effects that mining the seafloor could have. Hydrothermal vent fields are particularly sensitive and scientifically priceless ecosystems that could suffer irreparable damage under the impact. Home to an array of truly exotic creatures, including gigantic tubeworms and microbes capable of extracting energy from chemicals, more than 1300 new species have been identified around such vents since they were discovered in 1977.

Other than the wholesale removal of large swaths of ocean-bottom sediment and rock and the accompanying ecosystem disruption, there are major concerns about water pollution and acidification from mining equipment and mineral processing.

Suspended clouds of sediment created when the seafloor is disturbed by mining activities and when tailings of fine material are dumped back into the sea may clog the filter-feeding apparatuses of bottom-dwellers and detrimentally affect zooplankton near the water’s surface, in both instances threatening integral components of the aquatic food web. In addition, nutrients released from sediments may lead to algal blooms and contamination with fatal effects on fish and other sea life.

Regulations needed

While mining companies would have us believe that their proposed activities in the deep ocean basins will be less environmentally destructive than mining on land, the threat of large-scale damage to entire ecosystems is very real. To protect and preserve our global oceanic heritage, we urgently need strictly monitored and enforced regulations to govern mineral extraction in international waters before it’s too late.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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