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.
The problem is that much remains unknown not just about what exists on the ocean floor, but also how ocean systems operate to keep the Earth habitable. The ocean floor was once thought to be a marine desert, but oceanographers say the sediment is rich in marine life, with thousands of species of invertebrates occupying a single site.
“It’s tampering with ecosystems we hardly understand that are really at the frontier of our knowledge base,” Conservation International vice president Greg Stone said. “We are starting mining extracting operations in a place where we don’t fully understand how it works yet. So that is our concern, disturbing the deep sea habitat.”
Most of the models rely on being able to produce 1 million tonnes of ore a year. Stone said the seabed authority was putting systems in place to protect the ocean floor, but other scientists say mining still poses enormous risks to the sediment and the creatures that live there.
“It is going to damage vast areas of the sea floor,” said Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii who served as an adviser to the International Seabed Authority. “I just don’t see any way [in] mining one of these claims that whole areas won’t be heavily damaged.”
Earle expressed fears about how mining companies will deal with waste in the high seas saying: “Mining is possible, but the 20,000ft question is: What do you do with the tailings? All of the proposals involved dumping the tailings at sea with profound impacts on the water column and the sea floor below.”
“The Seabed Authority initially proposed to set aside 1.6 million square kilometers of the ocean floor as protected areas, or about 20 percent of its territory. Yet those reserves are under review. As economic pressures rise, there are fears that commercial operations would begin to erode those protected areas,” Earle added.
“I think it is certain that within a year or two, there will be more claims covering these areas and there won’t be enough room left to develop these scientifically defensible protected areas,” Smith said.
Others have argued that with all the unknowns there should be no mining at all and that the high seas should remain out of bounds for mineral extraction and shipping.
Former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres, who co-chairs the Global Ocean Commission — an independent entity charged with developing ideas for ocean reform — along with former British secretary of foreign affairs David Miliband suggested leaving all of the high seas as a no-go area for commercial exploitation (apart from shipping).
“Do we know enough about the seabed to go ahead and mine it?” Figueres asked. “Do we understand enough about the interconnection between the seabed, the column of water, the 50 percent of the oxygen that the ocean produces for the world, the 25 percent of the carbon that it fixes in order to go in and disrupt the seabed in way that we would if we went in and started mining? I don’t think so, not until we have scientific backing to determine whether this is something good or bad for the planet.”
World leaders are now mobilizing to address concerns, not just about seabed mining, but about how to safeguard ocean systems which are increasingly being recognized as critical to global food security and a healthy planet.
In a video address delivered to a high-level ocean summit hosted by the Economist and National Geographic last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry invited leaders to a two-day summit in Washington that will seek ways of protecting fishing stocks from overexploitation and protecting the ocean from industrial pollution, plastic debris and the ravages of climate change.
The stakes have never been higher, scientists say. The oceans are becoming increasingly important to global food security, as each year more than 1 million commercial fishing vessels extract more than 80 million metric tonnes of fish and seafood from the ocean. Up to 3 billion people rely on the sea for a large share of their protein, especially in the developing world, and those demands are only projected to grow.
“If you look at where food security has to go between now and 2030, we have to start looking at the ocean. We have to start looking at the proteins coming from the sea,” said Valerie Hickey, an environmental scientist at the World Bank.
That makes it all the more crucial to crack down on illegal and unregulated fishing, which is sabotaging efforts to build sustainable seafood industries. Two-thirds of the fish taken on the high seas are from stocks that are already dangerously depleted — far more so than in those parts of the ocean that lie within 321km of the shore and are under direct national control.
Estimates of the unreported and illegal catch on the high seas range between US$10 billion and US$24 billion a year, overwhelming government efforts to track or apprehend boats carrying out illegal fishing, a practice which also hurts responsible fishing crews.
Figueres and Miliband have suggested fitting all vessels operating on the high seas with transponders to track their movements. That would single out rogue fishing vessels, making it easier for authorities to apprehend the vessels and their catch.
However, it is not a perfect solution. A diplomat who has negotiated international agreements to control illegal fishing said captains — already cagey about revealing their favorite fishing routes — would simply flip off the transponders.
UN officials were also skeptical of the idea of a high-seas police force.
“It sounds a little bit like science fiction for me at this particular moment,” said Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, which manages 46 marine sites. “What kind of police? Who is going to monitor? How is it founded? It’s a very complicated issue.”
Yet the debate is a sign of growing momentum in an international effort to protect the oceans before it is too late.
When it comes to the ocean floor, that process is in the very early stages, but given the multiple disasters humans have inflicted on the oceans so far, the stakes for getting it right are high.
“There is no doubt there are huge mineral resources to be extracted at some point in the future,” Lodge said. “It’s also true that we don’t know enough about the impact on biodiversity and the impact on marine life once the mining takes place.”
As the ultimate custodian, Lodge said that the International Seabed Authority had two responsibilities: making sure that companies access that vast mineral wealth in an environmentally responsible way and share it out equitably.
“We have a huge challenge to devise a fiscal regime so that humankind as a whole gets a fair share. That’s an enormous challenge,” he said. “If we end up giving it away to industry, then we have failed in our missions.”