Source: National Geographic
Author: Sabrina Weiss
It could begin as early as 2024. The ecological harm would be vast—but scientists can’t say yet whether it would be permanent or excessive.
When a 27-ton mining robot called Patania II began vacuuming up metal ores from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in April 2021, it was not alone. Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), the Belgian company that developed the robot, had a group of scientists watching its every move—or rather, an array of remotely-controlled vehicles equipped with cameras and other sensors.
GSR is one of several companies that hopes to begin mining the seabed on an industrial scale in the coming years, perhaps as early as 2024. Some are touting the seabed as a sustainable source of the metals needed to produce batteries for electric vehicles or smartphones. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to figure out just how much ecological damage deep-sea mining would do.
The short answer is a lot, according to the European consortium of scientists who’ve been monitoring GSR’s efforts and reported preliminary results recently at a virtual meeting.
Deep-sea scientist Diva Amon says, “Nodules take millions of years to form, and they are a central part of this ecosystem. So by removing them, you are irreversibly damaging this ecosystem”. Octopuses, for instance, lay their eggs on the dead stalks of sea sponges that grow on the nodules.
Deep-sea mining poses other risks, too. Collector vehicles will emit noise and light in an environment that is otherwise in perpetual darkness. As they plow up the seabed, they will also stir up plumes of sediment. A major concern is how far deep-sea currents will disperse those plumes. As the sediment settles back onto the seabed, it could smother living creatures far from the mining operation itself.
“There are quite a lot of concerns that industry might push forward,” says Pradeep Singh, a legal researcher at the University of Bremen, Germany, who supports a moratorium. “One mining activity might not be so harmful, but if you allow one, you’re going to have to allow others, and then cumulatively, the impacts are going to be disastrous.”
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