Decisive crossroads in race to bottom

10 October, 2022

It is a part of our world that is more alien to us than the surface of Mars. There are precious treasures that can give our sustainable transition a boost – and a fragile environment with species that we have never seen. Soon a decision will be made about mining at the deepest bottom of the world’s oceans. Major stakeholders are in the starting pits.

In a certain area of the Pacific Ocean, at depths of between 3,500 and 5,500 meters, there are vast fields covered in lumps of rock the size of potatoes. The lumps contain nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt – and in this particular area there are probably more of these metals than there are on land on the whole earth.

Polymetallic nodules
Polymetallic nodules at depths of about 5,500 metres off the coast of Japan. Photo: JAMSTEC/AFP/TT

The area is called the Clarion-Clipperton zone and major powers and big business have already been given the right to start prospecting for a large-scale mining of its bottom.

The industry is ready with large machines that can be lowered into the depths and, like threshers, harvest lumps of stone from the bottom corals.

Aspiring mining giants have ensured that the UN-chartered seabed authority ISA must shortly make a decision on whether to allow bottom mining – or stop altogether.

Be in commercials

As the world turns away from fossil fuels, the value of rare metals used in, for example, car batteries and wind turbines rises.

– Land-based resources are becoming increasingly difficult to access. We have already taken the best resources,” says Michael Lodge, director general of the seabed authority ISA, in a film clip that has attracted the attention of, among others, the Los Angeles Times.

The film clip in question attracted a lot of criticism, even among Lodge’s colleagues within the ISA. The general manager spoke during a trip to the Clarion-Clipperton zone, where he accompanied the fast-growing Canadian mining company The Metals Company (formerly Deepgreen Metals).

The clip in which Lodge speaks out became part of the company’s marketing, as part of a commercial in which all the benefits of the planned business were highlighted.

ISA has already issued 31 exploration permits for the seabed in international waters. It is both private and state actors who have been given permission to investigate the possibilities of mining and it is above all in the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific Ocean.

map cobalt-rich bottom crust
The map shows areas of cobalt-rich bottom crust as well as polymetallic nodules and sulphides. Graphic: Anders Humlebo/TT

The research community is sounding the alarm

All in all, it is about 1.3 million square kilometers of seabed that is being explored. The mission of the UN agency ISA is to regulate the exploitation of the seabed in international waters, manage “humanity’s common heritage” and safeguard the deep-sea sensitive ecosystems.

More than 650 marine environment researchers from about 40 different countries have signed a demand for a moratorium on the exploitation of the seabed. Several international and largely battery-dependent corporate giants have also backed it.

It is discovered for even new animals and organisms in the depths, far further down than sunlight reaches. We know too little about how ecosystems will be affected, according to scientists and environmental organizations. They warn of the mass death of life forms that have not yet even been discovered.

It is pointed out that large noisy machines will stir up sediment and pollute the deep sea – which is often held up as the earth’s main carbon sink.

“Deep-sea mining could cause a devastating array of effects that would threaten the processes that are critical to the health and functioning of the oceans,” British star zoologist David Attenborough warned the other year, when the organisation Fauna & Flora International released a report highlighting the downsides of mining.

Many critics argue that much would be gained with a more successful recycling of the rare metals already mined on land.

Collaborating with island nation

The industry, and The Metals Company, state, among other things, that the stones on the seabed contain no toxic heavy metals and that the mining does not cause any waste.

The ISA has long been trying to develop an international regulatory framework, but now it is urgent. It depends on Nauru.

The Oceanian island state, which has about 10,000 inhabitants, has partnered with The Metals Company and last summer made a formal request for a Naurian company to begin deep-sea mining. The Nauranian company is wholly owned by the Canadian corporation.

According to a special formality within the ISA, a decision must then be made within two years. Rules must therefore be nailed down by next summer.

China is the state actor with the greatest interest in the issue, as the country’s companies have secured the most exploration permits, five. The country has already subjugated a large part of the world’s cobalt production, including through a large ownership in the criticized mining industry in Congo-Kinshasa.

Russia, Japan and South Korea are also reported to have pushed for a permissive line within the ISA. The United States has opted out of international cooperation.

In the north, many states, including a Norwegian company, have begun to take an interest in deep-sea mining in the Arctic.

“Haven’t we learned?”

When ISA members met last summer, several states objected to a decision being forced in a short period of time. Chile requested a 15-year moratorium in order for science to provide further answers. Several Pacific nations called for a definitive halt.

– How can we in good conscience say that we should start mining without knowing what the risks are? Palestinian President Surangel Whipps asked the Assembly at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon.

– Haven’t we learned our lesson? We simply do not know what we will unleash by descending hundreds, thousands of meters to the bottom of the ocean,” World Wide Fund for Nature’s top executive Marco Lambertini told Reuters at the same conference.

The ISA and its chief executive Michael Lodge have been repeatedly criticized for a lack of transparency in decision-making. Lodge has refuted all such allegations and, among other things, attributed much of the criticism to “almost fanatical” environmentalists.

At the beginning of September, a new development took place in anticipation of the big decision. The Metals Company announced that it had received permission from the ISA to conduct an initial test drilling in the Clarion-Clipperton zone. When the company itself announced this, the drilling had already been completed.

Polymetallic nodules

Also called manganese nodules. They form on or just below the sediment-covered bottom of the deep ocean and consist of layers of iron and manganese hydroxides around a core. The lumps can be microscopically small or have a diameter of up to two decimeters. During formation, they absorb metals such as nickel, cobalt, copper and titanium.

Polymetallic sulfides

Plumes of superheated volcanic water shoot up out of cracks in the ocean floor where the continental plates meet and bump against each other, which they do, among other things, along the so-called “Ring of Fire” in the Pacific Ocean. At these underwater geysers, species of a kind have been discovered that are not found anywhere else in the oceans.

When the water is pushed out and meets the cold sea water, it precipitates over the surrounding bottom. These layers, which over time become very large, contain, among other things, copper, zinc and lead, but in some cases also gold and silver.

Cobalt-rich bottom crust

The seabed along the slopes of the midoceanic ridges (the larger mountains of the seabed) is covered by a crust containing manganese alloys and large amounts of cobalt. According to some estimates, more than six million square kilometres of the seabed are covered by these crusts – in which case there are around a billion tonnes of cobalt.

The crusts can also contain, among many other things, titanium, cerium, nickel, platinum, thallium and tungsten.

Source: ISA, Nature, World Ocean Review

The world’s oceans are divided into five ecological zones, based on their depth and temperature.

The top zone, the epipelagial, extends from the surface down to a depth of 200 meters. There is enough sunlight for photosynthesizing organisms.

This is followed by the mesopelagial, which lies between 200 and 1,000 meters deep. In that zone, all light gradually disappears and it is therefore also called the twilight zone.

The third zone is the batypelagic one, which extends down to a depth of 4,000 meters. No sunlight reaches here and here begins the actual deep sea.

Next up is the Abyssala region, which stretches all the way down to a depth of 6,000 metres. The temperature is lower than four plus degrees. The animals are highly specialized.

At the very bottom is the hadala region. It mainly includes the deep-sea trenches where the water pressure is extremely high. Nevertheless, there is a wide range of animal species here.

Sources: NE, Smithsonian

Text: Martin Mederyd Hårdh/TT
Photo: Caleb Jones/AP/TT, JAMSTEC/AFP/TT
Graphic: Anders Humlebo/TT

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