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The Race to Mine the Bottom of the Ocean

Unveiling the ocean's hidden treasures

By Morgan EverlyPublished 5 months ago 3 min read
The Race to Mine the Bottom of the Ocean
Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

In 2012, a Canadian mining company embarked on a journey into the heart of the Pacific Ocean, targeting the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a remote area southeast of Hawaii. This underwater realm, lying thousands of meters below the surface, conceals a vast treasure trove of metals and minerals essential for our modern way of life. From electrical wiring to car engines and smartphones, these resources, worth billions of dollars, have become the focus of a race that could shape the future of sustainable resource extraction.

The urgency behind this race stems from our evolving global needs, particularly the imperative to decarbonize and transition to clean energy. The metals and minerals found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone are estimated to be six times more abundant than all land-based deposits combined. As the demand for these resources continues to soar, 17 exploration ships from various nations and private companies are competing in a race to the ocean floor.

However, this race is not without its challenges. The United Nations, through the International Seabed Authority (ISA), faces critical questions regarding the environmental impact of seabed mining and the equitable distribution of profits among nations. The laws of the sea, established in 1958, delineate a country's sovereignty territory and exclusive economic zone, leaving about 72% of the deep ocean as the common heritage of mankind.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, discovered in the 1870s during the British HMS Challenger expedition, holds significant deposits of metals like manganese, cobalt, and nickel. Multinational interest in mining the ocean floor emerged in the 1960s and 70s, prompting the UN to adopt additional laws in 1982. The ISA, based in Kingston, Jamaica, was established to enforce these laws and regulate deep-sea mining applications.

To navigate these regulations, mining companies, like the Canadian-based Metals Company, have entered partnerships with Pacific Island nations such as Nauru, Kiribati, and Tonga. These collaborations allow companies to secure exploration contracts, test equipment, and conduct environmental reviews. The ISA, comprised of 168 member states and the European Union, approves exploration applications through a careful review process.

Despite the potential economic benefits, deep-sea mining faces staunch opposition from at least 21 countries calling for a moratorium or ban. Concerns revolve around the irreversible environmental damage that could result from disturbing ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve. Unique creatures, adapted to the extreme conditions of the deep sea, could face the unintended consequences of noise, light, and massive sediment plumes kicked up by mining machinery.

Proponents argue that deep-sea mining poses fewer environmental risks compared to land-based mining, pointing to the potential decline in fish and shrimp populations observed in a 2020 study off the coast of Japan. The delicate balance between meeting the growing need for metals and safeguarding the deep sea's delicate ecosystems remains a pressing challenge, requiring careful consideration and international cooperation.

In 2021, despite opposition, The Metals Company made a significant stride by going public on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's CEO rang the opening bell, emphasizing their commitment to the project of decarbonizing global energy and transport. However, specific regulations for deep-sea mining are yet to be established by the ISA, leading to a stalemate in the ongoing debate.

As of 2023, The Metals Company plans to submit a mining application in 2024, potentially becoming the first to mine the ocean floor. The clock is ticking for the ISA to reach a consensus on regulations, raising concerns about the lack of specific guidelines for the deep seafloor. The delicate dance between progress and preservation continues, as the world grapples with the responsibility of tapping into the resources of the deep sea without causing irreparable harm.

While the race to the bottom of the ocean intensifies, a parallel effort is underway – a race to document the ecosystem at the bottom of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Research ships are rushing to uncover the biodiversity that could be impacted by mining activities. The hope is that this research could help minimize the potential damage or, at the very least, provide a clearer understanding of what we stand to lose in our pursuit of a sustainable future.

In conclusion, the deep sea mining race represents a pivotal moment in our quest for resources, posing profound questions about our ability to balance progress with environmental stewardship. As the clock ticks toward the submission of mining applications, the world watches, aware that the decisions made today will shape the future of resource extraction and the preservation of our planet's most mysterious depths.

SustainabilityScienceNatureCONTENT WARNINGClimate

About the Creator

Morgan Everly

Meet Morgan Everly, a writer who loves exploring everything from science to economics and crafting captivating stories. Join me on a journey through a world of diverse interests and engaging narratives.

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