Deep sea explorers continue to discover new forms of sea life in the depths of the world's ocean, but our oceans are being pursued by mining companies as a huge potential market for minerals extraction.
"The next frontier of mining is going to be in the ocean, because there's a lot of these rare earth elements and minerals in the sea." [Source]
The seabed contains potentially trillions of dollars worth of gold alone, as well as copper, cobalt, and many other minerals useful in the production of technology and consumer items. The process is highly controversial, and activists have been working for years to stop this before it starts. Essentially, giant remote-operated equipment is sent to the sea floor to grind up and disintegrate the bed, and material is pumped to containment vessels at the surface.
Considering that the first 10-15 centimeters of the ocean floor is where the vast majority of deep-sea life lives, processes like this on an industrial scale would spell disaster for life there. While deep-sea mining has been of interest to mining companies for decades, since 2000 a small number of exploration contracts have been permitted around the world, but the first actual operating license is about to be granted for mining the seas in Papua New Guinea. This would signal the beginning of a race to carve out mining contracts for states and companies, dividing up an enormous portion of the earth which has until now been relatively untouched.
There are concerns relating to impact of the mining systems on the sea floor, the creation of sediment plumes as a result of seabed operations, the integrity of the riser pipes and the release of waste materials following pre-processing of the minerals at the sea surface, says MIDAS, which conducted research from the Pelagia vessel from 2013-2016. "The scale of these impacts needs to be assessed so that the development of regulations to control mining activities can be properly informed."
"New environmental issues need to be considered, such as the large surface areas affected by nodule mining, the potential risk of submarine landslides through sediment destabilization in gas hydrate extraction, or the release of toxic elements through oxidation of minerals during seafloor massive sulfides (SMS) mining," MIDAS adds. [Source]
Earlier this year, The Economist produced the following video shedding light on this process which will take place out of sight and out of mind, potentially causing catastrophic destruction to more of earth's ecosystems while very few are even aware of it.
There is growing opposition to deep-sea mining, and recently, BBC broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough made strong statements condemning this practice.
"It's heartbreaking ... that's where life began, that we should be destroying these things [hydrothermal vents] is so deeply tragic, that humanity should just plow on with no regard for the consequences - because they don't know what they are!" - Sir David Attenborough objects to experimental seabed mining, BBC News.
Incidentally, activists around the world are fighting tooth and nail to stop mining projects in the world's rainforests and in other sensitive and biologically diverse places. And now, in Papua New Guinea, the struggle to stop the first deep-sea mining license is aimed at preventing the Nautilus corporation from proceeding with a deep-sea project which appears to be unstoppable at this point.
One has to wonder if continued destruction of the planet is in our best interest, even if it does serve the consumer economy. At a time when companies are doing everything they can to make their latest products obsolete to fuel sales of new versions of technology products, e-waste is becoming a huge toxic global problem. All the while, major scorched earth projects like the Athabasca Tar Sands project in Canada proceed unabated and supported by government.