This is the final frontier: The ocean floor, 4,000m beneath the waters of the central Pacific Ocean, where mining companies are now exploring for the rich deposits of ores needed to keep industry humming and smartphones switched on.
The prospect of a high-seas version of the Klondike gold rush has alarmed scientists. The oceans — which make up 45 percent of the world’s surface — are already degraded by overfishing, industrial waste, plastic debris and climate change, all of which are altering their chemistry. They are now faced with a new extractive industry and scientists say governments are not prepared for the effects.
“It’s like a land grab,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle said. “It’s a handful of individuals who are giving away or letting disproportionate special interests have access to large parts of the planet that just happen to be under water.”
The vast expanses of the central Pacific seabed being opened up for mining are still largely an unknown, said Earle, who is also an explorer-in-residence for National Geographic.
“What are we sacrificing by looking at the deep sea with dollar signs on the few tangible materials that we know are there? We haven’t begun to truly explore the ocean before we have started aiming to exploit it,” she added.
Yet these warnings may be arriving too late. The price of metals is rising and the ore content of the nodules of copper, manganese, cobalt and rare earths strewn across the ocean floor promise to be 10 times greater than the richest seams on land, making the cost of their retrieval from the extreme depths more attractive to companies.
Mining the ocean floor of the central Pacific on a commercial scale is still five years away, but the beginnings of an underwater gold rush are already underway The number of companies seeking to mine beneath international waters has tripled in the past three or four years.
“We have already got a gold rush, in a way,” said Michael Lodge, deputy secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates the use of the sea floor in international waters. “The amount of activity has expanded exponentially.”
The Jamaica-based agency has to date granted 26 permits to explore an area the size of Mexico beneath the central Pacific that had been set aside for seabed mining, all but eight of which were issued over the past three or four years.
Britain is leading the way in a project spearheaded by Lockheed Martin, but Russia, China, Japan and South Korea also have projects in play. This year, companies from Brazil, Germany and the Cook Islands have obtained permits to explore tracts of up to 75,000km2 on the ocean floor for copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese and the rare earth metals that help power smartphones, tablets and other devices.
Other areas of the Pacific that are outside international waters are also opening up for mining. For example, Papua New Guinea has granted permission to Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals to explore a site 30km off its coast for copper, zinc and gold deposits worth potentially hundreds of millions of US dollars.
Lodge expects the pace to continue, amid rising demand for metals for emerging economies, as well as technologies such as hybrid cars and smartphones. Extracting the metals will not require drilling, since the ore deposits are in nodules strewn across the rolling plains of sediment that carpet the ocean floor. Oceanographers say they resemble knobbly black potatoes, ranging in size from a couple of centimeters to up to 30cm. Mining companies say it may be possible to scoop them up with giant tongs and siphon them up to vessels waiting on the surface.