Deep-sea mining could make 'largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet'

The Clipperton Fracture Zone is the nearly horizontal line No. 15 below the Clarion Fracture Zone (14), and the Middle America Trench is the deep-blue line No. 9.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Modern technologies like cell phones, laptops, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles all require rare minerals, often difficult and expensive to extract from the earth.

As demand for these kinds of products surges globally and more accessible deposits of those minerals are depleted, Civil Beat reported Wednesday, countries around the world are flocking to Hawaii to explore a vast undersea area believed to contain massive mineral deposits worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The area is called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, and organizations from countries including Japan, Great Britain, Russia, South Korea, China, France, Germany and the US are now using Honolulu as a departure point for exploration. Though the zone is just one of several in the sights of deep-sea mineral industry pioneers, researchers involved believe it holds great promise.

Their expeditions are mapping parts of the zone about 500 miles southeast of Hawaii, which covers a total estimated area of 6 million total square miles. The treasured minerals include "nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements with tongue-twisting names like praseodymium, ytterbium and neodymium," Civil Beat reports, believed to lie among the ocean bed in the form of "polymetallic nodules."

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, "a team of Japanese scientists said that they found an estimated 80 billion to 100 billion metric tons of rare-earth deposits in the Pacific Ocean, or nearly a thousand times more than current proven recoverable onshore rare-earth reserves."

“This mining, when it occurs, is going to be just massive in scale. It probably will have the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet,” said Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, which is helping to facilitate exploration. He believes the mining could begin as soon as 2018, though the underwater minerals industry remains in its infancy with specialized technology — like the business model for undersea mining — that is largely untested.

Despite the significant economic and environmental risks associated with undersea mining, the sheer size of the anticipated deposits have attracted a range of companies ranging from giants like Lockheed Martin to smaller upstarts like Nautilus Minerals.

In endorsing a Pacific Ocean exploration partnership between Lockheed the British government in March, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "The UK is leading the way in this exciting new industry which has the potential to create specialist and supply chain jobs across the country and is expected to be worth up to £40 billion [$65.5 billion] to the UK economy over the next 30 years."

The environmental cost, like that of deep-sea drilling campaigns now being planned in the Arctic, is difficult to calculate because relatively little is known about the planet's deep sea ecosystem.

More from GlobalPost: The Arctic Melt: Oil Rush at the Top of the World

“The deep sea is the most prevalent ecosystem on the planet, but people know very little about it because it’s so big and it’s expensive to explore,” said Jack Kittinger, a science advisor for Conservation International’s Hawaii Fish Trust program and fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions." It could impact thousands of species, including deep sea fish, cucumbers, worms and crustaceans. These are systems that are characterized by high biodiversity.”

The international governing body responsible for governing access to undersea minerals below the high seas is the International Seabed Authority, created by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the US has not signed. Researchers including Smith and Kittinger are developing a conservation plan that would protect one quarter of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone from mining, which could take far longer than five years to begin on a large scale — if ever.

In an era of global climate change, population growth and increasingly scarce resources, another battle between conservation, necessity and profit motive will play out on a global stage. With deep-sea minerals, we're barely into the first act. 

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