After depleting the natural resources found on the Earth’s surface, it seems only fitting that humans would turn to the largely undiscovered seafloor bed to look for a new source of nonrenewable energy. Sitting in large quantities miles under the surface of the ocean are black rocks, called nodules, which contain nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements that may be considered necessary to maintain the current and future global production of technology.
These nodules are found in mass in the 4,500-mile-long ocean desert called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, or CCZ. Nodules were first discovered in 1873 when the HMS Challenger found in its haul, rocks of almost pure manganese oxide. While the discussion of mining nodules used to be between geologists and chemists, the conversation has shifted to more of an economic and political issue, with countries willing to spend millions and billions of dollars on deepsea mining.
An alternative to fossil fuels, nodules have become increasingly sought after, with countries all over the world competing for mining rights over the CCZ. The International Seabed Authority is the organization that is responsible for allowing certain countries to mine for the nodules. The organization is also the one that wrote the Mining Code, which “refers to the whole of the comprehensive set of rules, regulations and procedures issued by the International Seabed Authority to regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed Area.”
In the past few decades, The International Seabed Authority has awarded 16 contracts to various countries for exploration of the CCZ, which includes mining of the nodules. Up to 14 other contracts have been awarded for exploration of different parts of the ocean dealing with “polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed.” The earliest of the contracts made for the CCZ was in 2001 with the Interoceanmetal Joint Organization which ended in 2016. All of the contracts expire at the end of 15 years.
Countries, including Japan, China, Belgium, Germany, and France, have all received contracts to mine the ocean floor, but one name missing from the list is the United States. Without a contract held by the United States to mine in the CCZ, the country does not get any say in the mining regulations.
“Recovery from man-made disturbance could take decades, centuries or even millennia, if these ecosystems recover at all . . . As we learn more about deep sea ecosystems and the role of oceans in mitigating climate change, it seems wise to take precautions to avoid damage that could have long-lasting and unforeseen consequences,” Dr. David Santillo, senior researcher for Greenpeace Research Labrotories said.
Mining for nodules may seem like the answer to the world’s problem of diminishing fossil fuels, but like their predecessor, mining for nodules can be detrimental to the environment. It takes nodules millions of years to form, making them as nonrenewable as fossil fuels. Sediment plumes caused by the disruption of the sediment on the seafloor could also greatly affect the ecosystems under the ocean’s surface. The extent of the mining for nodules is largely unprecedented so it is hard for scientists to say to what extent the loose sediment will hurt the ocean species. The same can be said about the different sources of pollution, including light and sound, on the underwater species. Even a threat of another major oil spill lingers.
The nodules and the sediment around them are home to rich biodiversity. It should be no surprise that the mining of nodules disrupts the natural habitats on the seafloor. The species on the ocean floor are still largely unknown to scientists. Nodule mining can cause the extinction of undiscovered and known endemic species. In 2016, the ghost octopus was discovered which lays its eggs on sponge stalks that anchor themselves to nodules. Xenophyophytes also attach themselves to nodules as anchors and protection. Both of these creatures would be negatively impacted by the mining of nodules in the future.
Exploration of species under the ocean’s surface has also shown to hold promise in the future of medicine. Creatures, such as certain sea sponges, have been researched extensively and scientists believe they could be used in developing antibiotics and cancer-fighting medicines. The worry is that mining will disrupt the habitats of such animals and consequentially their populations before it’s possible.
It seems that the future of the ocean floor may be as bleak as that of the Earth’s surface when it comes to mining for resources. In order to stop the destruction before it goes too far, regulations must be enhanced on the mining and more research on the possible effects that mining could have on the natural ecosystems under the ocean’s surface must be done.