The Dangers of Deep-Sea Mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone

The rush to begin deep-sea mining is unjustified and dangerous. Many of the areas targeted for mining are virtually unexplored, and the consequences of mining are unknown and unpredictable.


Source: National Academy of Sciences.

As we mark World Ocean Day, El Niño raises sea surface temperatures to record-breaking heights and a novel threat looms over the ocean floor. The practice of deep-sea mining is advancing closer by the day. Multiple corporations have a vested interest in extracting rare earth minerals deposited in nodules across the ocean floor. These minerals are integral to technologies such as smartphones, electric vehicles, and wind turbines. While they have historically been sourced through land-based mining, terrestrial reserves are dwindling at a time when demand is increasing for these products. The first application to lease the seabed for exploitation is expected as early as this July. However, concerns from the scientific community have fueled stakeholder backlash, causing companies and countries alike to boycott this industry. Despite the controversy, however, there appear to be no plans to pause the pursuit of extraction.

Figure 1: Map of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone

Source: United States Geological Survey.

The deep sea is one of the most extreme, remote, and mysterious ecosystems on Earth. Once deemed lifeless, emerging research indicates that this seemingly inhospitable biome may actually host staggering levels of biodiversity. Recently, over 5,000 new species were discovered inhabiting the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an undersea submarine fracture zone west of Mexico, and a key target for seafloor prospecting. Still, researchers estimate that 88 to 92 percent of the species inhabiting this area remain undiscovered. Many are likely to hold immense medicinal potential. Deep-sea organisms and their esoteric biological adaptations have propelled exciting new pharmaceutical advances—treating cancers, infectious diseases, and even Alzheimer’s. Many species in these deep-sea environments do not exist anywhere else on Earth. The disturbance of one habitat could risk entire species-level extinction events.

The seafloor has never been mined before. With little to no prior experimentation, mining poses unknown risks to deep-sea ecosystems. However, researchers have predicted that the impact will be far-reaching. Machinery equipped with powerful floodlights risk blinding organisms that are adapted to sunless conditions. The noise generated by drilling into the seabed will add to the cacophony of anthropogenic sound pollution already emanating across the entire ocean. The plowing of the seabed could disrupt benthic microbial communities that play a critical role in marine nitrogen cycling—risking the productivity of surrounding waters and posing significant economic risks to Mexican and Central American fisheries. The extraction and processing of these minerals can also generate toxic sediment plumes capable of traveling vast distances across the ocean, burying coral reefs, and muddying seawater. Scientists are only just beginning to identify these risks—much less hypothesize how to mitigate them.

Figure 1: Schematic of Deep-Sea Mining

Source: National Academy of Sciences.

Given our current lack of understanding of the full impacts of deep-sea mining, proceeding with plans to mine will likely risk the existence of a myriad of deep-sea biota—rendering countless unknown organisms extinct before we have the chance to discover them. Given this risk, scientists are imploring that companies wait to mine the seabed until the resilience of the ecosystem and totality of risks are better understood. Corporations such as Google, Volkswagen, Samsung, and Volvo have pledged not to purchase or profit from minerals sourced from the seabed. Within the Western Hemisphere, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama have called for a precautionary pause.

Despite this backlash, the organization in charge of regulating extraction, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), has failed to take action to halt, or even slow, this process. The ISA is an intergovernmental body tasked with the conflicting roles of regulating deep-sea mining and protecting the deep-sea ecosystem. Created in 1982 under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the organization is in charge of managing resource extraction in all areas of the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction. This is an area representing over 50 percent of the planet’s seabed. Despite its connection to the United Nations, the ISA is not required to abide by many of the UN policies adopted since its inception—including the recent High Seas Agreement, which enshrined the Precautionary Principle in its guidelines, cementing the preference for caution and review in situations with unknown consequences. Though designed for impartiality, the ISA has made no concessions to the concerns of the scientific community. The ISA receives a considerable USD$ 500,000 for every exploration lease they approve, raising concerns about a potential financial conflict of interest.

Many scientists are concerned by the lack of impartiality of the ISA and its leaders. When confronted with scientists’ environmental concerns, ISA Secretary-General Michael Lodge asserted, “If you spend your whole life studying the worms that live on nodules, then you get very attached to that. And I’m not sure that they really see the woods for the trees.” However, the worms that live on deep-sea nodules are unlikely to be the only organisms affected by mining—the impact will be felt across the ocean and impact the globe.

The rush to begin deep-sea mining is unjustified and dangerous. Many of the areas targeted for mining are virtually unexplored, and the consequences of mining are unknown and unpredictable. Science has a long history of underestimating biodiversity in the oceans. A just-released study, for example, finds scientists have been drastically underestimating the ocean’s microbial biodiversity and that just 99 Pacific coral reefs harbor more microbes than the entire planet. It is not too late to slow this process of degradation down and safeguard similar future ocean discoveries.

Sophia Marencik is a Conservation Policy Intern with Ocean Doctor.

David E. Guggenheim, Ph.D., is the Founder and President, Ocean Doctor.

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