UMC 2021 Focus
Half a Century On:
Learning from the Past to Inform the Future
The special metals found in rich deposits on the deep ocean floor are critical for smart electronics and crucial green technologies, such as solar power and electric cars. But as the world’s population rises, demand is now outstripping the production from mines on land for some important elements, like cobalt. The ocean mining business players say the extraordinary richness of the underwater deposits mean the environmental impacts will be far lower than on land. But critics say exotic and little-known ecosystems in the deep oceans could be destroyed and must be protected. This is where the dilemma starts.
The idea of tapping the seabed in this way is obviously attractive. Our insatiable thirst for gadgets, electric cars, and clean power has created huge demand for rare and precious metals that are currently mined—often unethically, sometimes at great expense—here on land. Scraping up the requisite materials from the deep blue would provide a way to ensure that the demands of the future are met, and it’s easy enough to see that pioneers of the approach could also make their millions in the process.
Mines on land often require forests and villages to be cleared, overlying rocks to be removed and roads or railways to be built in order to extract ores with relatively weak concentrations of minerals. In addition, the majority of these mines are found in developing countries with fragile governments, where sometimes even children are working in extremely improper and unhealthy ways. By contrast, mines on the seabed would extract far richer ores, covering a smaller area and with no immediate impact on people - but instead killing marine life wherever mining machines are deployed. It is important however to remember that deep sea minerals are usually found below 1000m depth of water, which means that there are no coral reefs around, and a very small density and marine life would be affected.
An early analysis of deep-sea mining tests showed that even small trials can damage marine ecosystems. The worry is that larger operations will cause far more damage, and it’s unclear what the wider ramifications might be if ecosystems are disturbed.
“If the world agrees to invest in green energy supplies, then we need the raw materials to make the devices that produce and store this energy. The raw materials have to come from somewhere. We can either dig them up from the ground and make a very large hole or dig them from the seabed and make a comparatively smaller hole. It's a dilemma for society - nothing we do comes without a cost." - Dr. Bramley Murton, National Oceanography Centre (NOC, UK).
In summary, the essential metals found in deep waters are the resources required to create a significant quantity of green energy, and yet extricating them could be harmful to the environment. The open question remains: does the benefit of the former outweigh the potential fallout of the latter? Answering that may not be straightforward, but it would get us further toward understanding whether we’re really ready to mine the depths.