Data analytics and consultancy company GlobalData has warned that deep ocean mining faces serious difficulties. In a report it issued recently, it warned that attempts to mine the seabed at such depths were both technically difficult and controversial.
Deep ocean seabeds are thought to be liberally-sprinkled with nodules containing cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel. And the foundations for a deep seabed mining economy are already being laid. Seabed mineral activities in international waters are managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The ISA is hoping to release seabed mineral exploitation regulations by July this year, with a meeting in February 2021 to consider and develop further draft rules. Once the draft rules have been agreed, the ISA could issue seabed mining permits in two to three years, allowing operations to start within a further few years.
But such operations will not be easy. “The real riches of the sea floor are to be found in areas such as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a remote part of the Pacific Ocean which is thought to have one of the world’s largest untapped collections of rare-earth elements,” pointed out GlobalData mining technology writer Heidi Vella.
“It is teeming with potato-sized deposits loaded with copper, nickel, manganese and other precious ores,” she noted. “However, the nodules in the CCZ are located some 4 000 m below the ocean surface, making mining much harder.”
And then there is the controversial nature of deep seabed mining, from an environmental point of view. It could damage the deep seabed ecosystem and put marine species in danger, before they are even discovered.
“Ecologically the area is quite different than [sic] the continental shelf, it will have a completely different ecosystem which is potentially more complex in its topography,” explained University of Exeter (UK) ecology lecturer Dr Kirsten Thompson. “To go and mine those areas without knowing what lives there seems really counterproductive to all sorts of activities we might want to do in the future, such as carbon burial for example.”