In 1972, ecologist Hjalmar Thiel boarded a ship with the goal of studying meiofauna – tiny organisms that populate the sediment at the bottom of the ocean. Thiel’s shipmates had a different goal: mining the ocean floor for rare minerals and metals. Thiel says the miners aboard “were nearly ready to drown me,” when he argued for concerns about harm to the ocean’s fauna. Thiel’s 1989 “DIS-turbance and re-COL-onization experiment” (DISCOL) proved his concerns were legitimate. Ocean mining never quite took off, but Olive Heffernan’s Nature article suggests that its time has finally come.
Deep-sea mining for minerals and metals is possible, but the industry has yet to develop.
Deep-sea mining was proven possible about 50 years ago, but keen companies, nations and investors have been thwarted by steep initial costs and hazy regulations. Canada’s Nautilus Minerals attempted mining near Papua New Guinea, but the project was met with local resistance and finally folded under a lack of funds. Global Sea Mineral Resources, a Belgian company, planned a trial in April 2019, but their robotic harvester was beset by technical failures. Despite the setbacks, increased demand for rare-earth metals makes development of the industry almost inevitable. So far, 29 licenses have been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), allowing government contractors to explore mining possibilities. The ISA is supposed to both protect the seabed and make sure its resources are being utilized – roles that may be in conflict with each other.
The ocean floor is home to a rich and little-studied ecosystem.
Most exploratory efforts for deep-sea mining...
Olive Heffernan is a science writer and lecturer covering climate change, the ocean, peer review and science communication. Her work has appeared in Nature, Scientific American, National Geographic News, Yale Environment 360 and BBC magazines.