Deep Sea Mining
Statement of issues
Humans have extracted minerals and petroleum from the earth for generations.
Our understanding of the impact of terrestrial extraction and mining on local biospheres has improved significantly and the costs of repairing any damaged caused has started to be factored into the decision to proceed or not.
The technology for doing so continues to develop and makes it possible to reach deposits in places never before exploited.
Our understanding of the biospheres in the deep ocean remains rudimentary at best.
The time has come to weigh the risks and benefits and alternatives to proceeding to mine the deep seabed.
The deep-sea floor – that part of the ocean averaging a depth of 4 km (2.5 miles) – covers half of the planet.
Despite its significance, the abyss remains poorly explored and it is often said we know more about the dark side of the moon. True or not, there is no question the deep sea remains poorly understood, not for lack of interest, but because of the sheer difficulty and expense involved in getting there. We no longer have the capacity to explore its deepest reaches as the vehicles that once brought us there are no longer functional.
Because of these difficulties, the deep sea has remained largely undisturbed. The deep sea floor has not been affected by human activity the way shallower areas have in our search for oil and gas, or even more mundane materials like sand and gravel. However, the deep sea contains minerals, some of them in in unique or highly enriched concentrations, and some of them in huge quantities, and hence our need to understand the implications of harvesting these.
The first attempts to mine these deposits were hindered by legal uncertainties and technical constraints, along with financial projections that did not justify the enormous investments required. Today, the legal uncertainties have been resolved, marine mining technology has advanced rapidly, and every rise in metal prices increases the commercial appeal of the deep sea. But while the technological and commercial challenges are being met, little is known about the environmental implications. It is easy enough to estimate the size of the deposits but figuring out how removing them would affect the deep sea, and even the ocean as a whole, remains largely unknown.
Humanity has an obligation to contemplate environmental harm before it has been inflicted. We have a unique chance to determine the environmental effects of deep sea mining prior to authorizing it. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to all the generations that follow ours.
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African Minerals Development CentreCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: EthiopiaAcronym: AMDC
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean SciencesCategory: AcademicCountry: United States
Center for Oceans Law and Policy, University of Virginia School of LawCategory: Legal And PolicyCountry: United StatesAcronym: COLP
Committee for Mineral Reserves International Reporting StandardsCategory: IndustryCountry: AustraliaAcronym: CRIRSCO
Convention on Biological DiversityCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: CanadaAcronym: CBD
Deep Ocean Stewardship InitiativeCategory: ConservationCountry: United KingdomAcronym: DOSI
Category: ConservationCountry: NetherlandsAcronym: DSCC
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) was founded in 2004 to address the issue of bottom trawling on the high seas, in the absence of an effective regime for the management of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas and in response to international concerns over the harmful impacts of deep-sea bottom trawling. Working with scientists, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and numerous governments, the DSCC has effectively and consistently targeted the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and other international fora to call for action.
Durham University’s International Borders Research CentreCategory: AcademicCountry: United KingdomAcronym: IBRC
Earth Negotiations BulletinCategory: PressCountry: CanadaAcronym: ENB
Fish Reef Project
Gallifrey FoundationCategory: ConservationCountry: Switzerland
Global Ocean TrustCategory: ConservationCountry: Germany
Greenpeace InternationalCategory: ConservationCountry: Netherlands
Category: AcademicCountry:Acronym: N/A
The aim of the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) is to develop and synthesise our understanding of deep-sea global biodiversity and functioning and provide a framework to bridge the gap between scientific results and society to aid in the formation of sustainable management strategies.
Institute for Advanced Sustainability StudiesCategory: AcademicCountry: GermanyAcronym: IASS
Intenational Ocean InstituteCategory: ConservationCountry: MaltaAcronym: IOI
InteridgeCategory: AcademicCountry: France
Interional Tribunal for the Law of the SeaCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: United NationsAcronym: ITLOS
International Association of Drilling ContractorsCategory: IndustryCountry: United StatesAcronym: IADC
International Cable Protection CommitteeCategory: IndustryCountry: United KingdomAcronym: ICPC
International Institute for Sustainable Development – Reporting Services (IISD-RS) (publishes the Earth Negotiations Bulletin)Category: PressCountry: United StatesAcronym: IISD
International Marine Minerals SocietyCategory: IndustryCountry: United StatesAcronym: IMMS
International Maritime OrganizationCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: United KingdomAcronym: IMO
International Policy Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCategory: AcademicCountry: United StatesAcronym: MIT
International Seabed AuthorityCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: United NationsAcronym: ISA
Category: ConservationCountry: SwitzerlandAcronym: IUCN
International Union for the Conservation of Nature
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a membership Union uniquely composed of both government and civil society organisations. It provides public, private and non-governmental organisations with the knowledge and tools that enable human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together.
Created in 1948, IUCN has evolved into the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network. It harnesses the experience, resources and reach of its 1,300 Member organisations and the input of some 13,000 experts. IUCN is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. Our experts are organised into six commissions dedicated to species survival, environmental law, protected areas, social and economic policy, ecosystem management, and education and communication.
Legal and Technical Commission of the ISACategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: United NationsAcronym: LTC
Middlebury Institute of International Studies Center for the Blue EconomyCategory: EconomicsCountry: United States
NektonCategory: EconomicsCountry: United Kingdom
nternational Dialogue on Underwater MunitionsCategory: IndustryCountry: CanadaAcronym: IDUM
Oceans UniteCategory: ConservationCountry: United Kingdom
Oceans UnitedCategory: ConservationCountry: United Kingdom
Sargasso Sea Commission
Save the High Seas CoalitionCategory: ConservationCountry: NetherlandsAcronym: STHSC
Shanghai Jiao Tong University Center for Polar and Deep Ocean DevelopmentCategory: AcademicCountry: ChinaAcronym: SJTU
The Pew Charitable Trusts
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art ContemporaryCategory: ConservationCountry: AustriaAcronym: TBA
UN Division for Oceans and Law of the SeaCategory: U.n. AgencyCountry: United NationsAcronym: LOS
World Oceans CouncilCategory: IndustryCountry: FranceAcronym: WOC
World Wildlife Fund InternationalCategory: ConservationCountry: SwitzerlandAcronym: WWF
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ABNJ – Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction
Marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), commonly called the high seas, are those areas of ocean for which no one nation has sole responsibility for management. In all, these make up 40 percent of the surface of our planet, comprising 64 percent of the surface of the oceans and nearly 95 percent of its volume.” The ABNJ includes the water column and seabed of the high seas. ABNJs are subject to threats from human activities in multiple sectors including deep-sea mining. UNCLOS has created a legal regime for areas beyond national jurisdiction that is regulated by ISA (see definitions of UNCLOS and ISA). A key component of the rules UNCLOS stipulates is the deep seabed beyond national jurisdiction is the common heritage of mankind: all mankind must benefit from its development. UNCLOS has therefore set out responsibilities to share the benefits of deep seabed exploration and exploitation. The ISA manages these responsibilities. At the same time, UNCLOS wants to ensure the effective protection from the harmful effects of mining operations. Sustainable management is extremely challenging in ABNJs, as these areas are usually very far from coastlines and very limited comprehensive legal instruments and coherent governance exists.The difficulties associated with managing ANBJs can be related to the difficulties of managing any other internationally shared resource system, as encompassed by the Tragedy of the Commons. The Tragedy of the Commons states that within in a shared-resource system individual actors exploit the system, acting independently according to their own self-interest.
Deep Seabed Mining : A rising environmental challenge (IUCN, 2018)
Global Environment Facility
APEIs – Areas of Particular Environmental Interest
The ISA (see definition for ISA) pioneered the deep-seabed’s first environmental management plan in 2012 by creating APEIs, or Areas of Particular Environmental Interest. They were created using MPAs as a blueprint (see definition of MPAs). These areas, where mining is off limits, are provisionally in place only for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ, see definition).
BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction
For the 60% of the ocean that lies in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the development of a new international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is poised to commence under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) (See definition for UNCLOS).” Diplomats, lawyers, and scientists will work to define the rules for activities including: establishing protected areas and other marine spatial planning, and environmental impact assessment for activities with potentially significant impacts (like deep-sea mining).
Scheduled to begin in September 2018, the negotiation is budgeted for two years, which is a pretty short time to reach an agreement that will affect about 230 million square kilometers, or 46 percent of Earth’s surface. The BBNJ instrument could address activities affecting the living ocean in a comprehensive way, bringing greater coherence and functionality to the complicated legal landscape of instruments, frameworks, and bodies; or it could have a narrow scope and limited authority, becoming one more specialized instrument.”
Benthic and Pelagic zones
Any body of water, a lake or ocean, can be divided into two main zones: the benthic and pelagic zone. The zones are categorized according to depth within a waterbody. The benthic zone refers to the very bottom layer of water in contact with the ocean floor, and the pelagic zone refers to the upper layers of water including the layer in contact with the atmosphere. The location of the benthic zone varies according to the depth of the water body: in deep oceans, it will be thousands of metres below the surface, but along continental shelves it will be just a few metres below. Both zones have distinct characteristics. The benthic zone is usually so deep that there is no sunlight, cold temperatures, low levels of oxygen and a characteristically high level of pressure. With these specific conditions, a unique community of organisms have evolved, called benthic flora and fauna (see definition for benthic flora and fauna). The benthic zone makes up about half of the Earth’s surface and is full of life, but it remains largely unexplored. Deep-sea mining presents a significant threat to life in the benthic zone by, for example, smothering and burying organisms where the sediment plume settles (see definition for sediment plumes), and crushing or dispersing them with mining devices. The pelagic zone has important functions such as oxygen absorption, heat absorption and food production. Most of life present in the ocean can be found in the pelagic zone. Pelagic communities are also threatened by deep-sea mining, by the formation of near-surface plumes (see definition of sediment plumes), which risk clogging the filter feeding apparatus of zooplankton (see definition of zooplankton), as well as blocking sunlight from photosynthetic organisms.
Benthic flora and fauna
Benthic flora and fauna are the community of organisms that inhabit the benthic zone (see definition for benthic zone), and can also be referred to as benthos. The benthic zone has a unique set of characteristics including: lack of sunlight, cold temperatures, low levels of oxygen and a high level of pressure. Because of these extreme conditions, benthic flora and fauna have undergone specific adaptations that allow them to survive. For example, due to the lack of light, there is no photosynthesis and benthic flora and fauna cannot produce their own food. Instead, they rely on organic matter that drifts down from the layers above. Currently we know very little about these unique ecosystems that inhabit the benthic zone, although we do know they are highly sensitive. Recovery from mining activities is estimated to take decades or centuries, if those communities even recover at all. Deep-sea mining will directly impact benthic flora and fauna, by, for example, smothering and burying organisms where the sediment plume settles (see definition for sediment plume), and crushing or dispersing them with mining devices.
CCZ – Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone
CCZ, or the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, is an extensive area in abyssal plains of the Pacific Ocean. The CCZ contains the largest known reserves of high-grade polymetallic nodules (see definition for polymetallic nodules), in an area estimated to be about 80 % of the size of contiguous United States.
EBSA – Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas
The EBSAs are special areas in the ocean that serve important purposes, in one way or another, to support the healthy functioning of oceans and the many services that it provides. In 2008, the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 9) adopted the following scientific criteria for identifying ecologically or biologically significant marine areas in need of protection in open-ocean waters and deep-sea habitats. 1. Uniqueness or Rarity, 2. Special importance for life history stages of species, 3. Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats, 4. Vulnerability, Fragility, Sensitivity, or Slow recovery, 4. Biological Productivity, 5. Biological Diversity 6. Naturalness.” EBSAs are identified by states and intergovernmental organizations, in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS (see definition for UNCLOS).
EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was created by UNCLOS (see definition for UNCLOS), and is one of the key innovations in the law of the sea. The EEZ is an area beyond and adjacent to a coastal State’s territorial sea to a limit of 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Within this zone, the coastal State may exercise sovereign rights over exploration, exploitation, conservation, and management of natural resources and other economic activities, such as the production of wind or tidal power.” Most of the marine deposits of minerals in demand are in the high seas, outside of the EEZ, but exploration still takes place in the EEZ.
Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts occur at shallower depths of <400 to about > 5000 meters in areas of significant volcanic activity. In many cases, the deposits occur within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the countries. Similar in general composition to the polymetallic nodules, cobalt crusts are attracting investment in exploration for higher cobalt percentage (up to 2%), platinum (0.0001%) and Rare Earth Elements (REE) besides Nickel and Manganese. The commercial interest in the cobalt crust is recent. The International Seabed Authority (ISA – see definition) has signed exploration contracts for cobalt-rich crusts with Japan, China and Russia.”
Hydrothermal vents are formed on oceanic spreading ridges (where two tectonic plates move away from each other) or subduction zones (where two tectonic plates collide). They are formed when seawater infiltrates down through cracks in the ocean crusts. The near freezing sea water is heated by hot magma and resurfaces to form vents. The vents emit jets of particle laden fluid, which solidify as they cool, forming chimney-like structures. There are two different types of vents: black smokers and white smokers. Black smokers are chimneys formed from deposits of iron sulfide, which is black. White smokers are chimneys formed from deposits of barium, calcium and silicon, which are white. The vents are surrounded by unique communities of organisms with specific adaptations, depending on the vents to convert minerals and other chemicals into energy in a process called chemosynthesis. Hydrothermal vents are of specific interest for deep-sea mining industries. The chimneys are an accumulation of valuable minerals like zinc, nickel and copper (see definition for key DSM metals). Mining the vents wipes out the entire living community, and it is unclear if these vents can recover. Like most benthic communities (see definition for benthic flora and fauna), scientists know very little about hydrothermal vents, so the extent of the destruction is not entirely known. Furthermore, the vents contain toxic chemicals like lead and arsenic that could spill in the mining process, potentially causing extensive harm to the surrounding ecosystems.
ISA – International Seabed Authority
The ISA, or the International Seabed Authority, is an independent international organization created under UNCLOS (see definition). They oversee the organization and control of activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ – see definition). They have granted 28 contracts for mineral exploration in the deep-sea, 18 of which have been granted in the last 4 years. These contracts encompass approximately 1 million km2 in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is operating with the dual mandate of promoting the development of the deep-sea bed whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment. This challenging and conflicting dual mandate will require improved oversight by the international community to make sure that the broader interests and welfare of the oceans are adequately addressed.”
Key deep-sea metals
Cobalt: Cobalt is used in batteries, magnets and pigments and colouring. There are estimated to be about 6.6 million tons in reserves around the world (land and sea), 52 % in Congo. Copper: Copper has many electronic applications, such as generators, transformers, PCs, TVs, mobile phones (65 % of copper is used for this) and automobile (7 %). There are estimated to be about 140 million tons in reserves around the world. Iron: Iron is primarily used for steel production (>90 % is used for this), also for automobiles, ships and trains. There are estimated to be about 230 billion tones in reserves around the world. Manganese: Manganese is used primarily in steel production (>85 % is used for this). There are estimated to be about 540 million tons in reserves around the world. Nickel: Nickel is primarily used for making steel (>46 % is used for this) and nonferrous allows and super alloys (>34 %). There are estimated to be about 71 million tons in reserves around the world.
Lost City Hydrothermal Field (or Lost City)
The Lost City contains by far the largest and oldest deep-sea vent structures found anywhere on Earth. They were discovered in 2000 close to the Mid-Atlantic ridge spreading centre. Despite the Lost City’s scientific importance, the ISA (see definition) approved an exploration contract with the Polish government very close to the site.
MPA – Marine Protected Areas
Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are areas off-limits to economic exploitation (mining included). They are protected to preserve portions of diverse habitats with high levels of biodiversity and ecosystem productivity. MPAs help to protect areas of the ocean where data is limited (seabeds, for example), to avoid exploitation causing unpredictable or irreversible damage.
Polymetallic nodules (or manganese nodules)
Of all the mineral resources considered as potential targets for deep-sea mining, polymetallic nodules (also commonly called manganese nodules) are probably the most likely commodity to be developed into a commercial operation. As well as containing commercially attractive (though variable) levels of metals such as nickel, copper and cobalt, their occurrence on the seafloor surface presents a relatively straightforward engineering challenge in terms of their extraction when compared to some other metal deposits in the deep-sea. Polymetallic nodules are rounded lumps of manganese and iron hydroxides that cover vast areas of the seafloor, but are most abundant on abyssal plains at water depths of 4000-6500 metres (see the definition of topographic features for abyssal plains).The nodules of greatest commercial interest occur in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (CCZ) and in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (see definition for CCZ).” (MIDAS, n/d) As with all other benthic ecosystems (see definition for benthic flora and fauna and benthic layer), it is difficult to assess exactly to what extent mining these nodules will impact the local deep-sea ecosystems, because very few scientific investigations have taken place so far. Many endemic (native) species have already been discovered, who depend on the nodules to survive. It is also known that recovery and recolonization rates are extremely slow.
Sediment plumes (near bottom and near surface plumes)
A significant environmental concern with deep-sea mining comes in the form of a ‘plume’ at the seafloor. A sediment plume, or simply plume, occurs with the combination of bottom sediments and turbidity in the water column. In the mining process, sediment plumes are created by the action of the mining device and during transport of mined materials. Plumes created by the mining device at the ocean floor are called near bottom plumes, and those created through transportation at the surface are called near surface plumes.With every ton of manganese nodule mined, 2.5-5.5 tonnes of sediment will be brought up into the water column. These suspended loads of sediment persist for long periods and travel laterally, potentially causing devastating effects to marine ecosystems. Near bottom plumes could bury and suffocate benthic flora and fauna (the organisms inhabiting the ocean floor – see definition), as well as clog their filter feeding mechanisms. Near surface plumes might cause even more damage, affecting extensive areas because they spread over greater distances with currents. These could affect the pelagic community (see definition of pelagic zone) by, for example, clogging the filter feeding mechanisms of zooplankton (see definition of zooplankton) and blocking sunlight for a range of photosynthetic organisms, preventing photosynthesis and decreasing biological activity long-term.
Topography (in relation to the deep-sea) refers to the shape of the ocean basin. Along the seafloor, there are a variety of topographic features like rift valleys, abyssal plains and seamounts. Within the different features, different marine minerals are usually present. For example, polymetallic sulfides are found on rift valleys, manganese nodules are found on abyssal plains and cobalt crusts on seamounts (see the definitions polymetallic sulfides, manganese nodules and cobalt crusts).
UNCLOS – The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
UNCLOS is a major international treaty that was adopted and signed in 1982. It provides rules, principles and guidelines for virtually every ocean use. UNCLOS was created after years of increased concern and debate on how to manage the resources in the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction. UNCLOS addressed these concerns by dividing the ocean into different jurisdictional zones, three of which are relevant to mineral development: the EEZ (see definition of EEZ), the Continental Shelf, and the International Seabed Area (or simply, the Area) which is under ISA jurisdiction (see definition for ISA). The treaty remains the backbone of international law to this day.
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