Skip to main content

Deep-sea mining

Treasures that come at a ruinous price

Getty Images

“The deep sea is filled with treasure,” says Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. Polymetallic nodules resembling “blackened potatoes” cover the ocean floor. Each one can take three million years to form, as layers of ore build up around marine debris such as ancient shark teeth. Collectively they contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land.

The Pacific Ocean may become “a new wild west” as companies seek to harvest this “submerged wealth.” Mining permits could be issued by the International Seabed Authority within a few years. Advocates say it will hasten the transition to clean energy, providing the billions of tonnes of metal needed to manufacture wind turbines, electrical vehicles and batteries. Polymetallic nodules also contain tellurium, an extremely rare metal crucial for making thin-film solar panels.

The danger is that seabed mining will destroy the deep ocean before we get a chance to explore it properly. The “majority of the creatures on the planet” may well live in the deep. The few we’ve discovered so far are extraordinary: ghostly pale octopuses, pink Mariana snailfish, yeti crabs that resemble “hairy white lobsters”. But marine scientists fear their fragile ecosystems won’t withstand a deep-sea mining bonanza.

Read the full article here (paywall).