A new analysis of 250 studies has found that the negative impacts of deep sea mining would be severe and could last millions of years.
As demand for smartphones, computers, and clean energy technologies has increased, so has demand for the precious rare earth metals like tellurium, cadmium, lithium, and cobalt that are used to make them. But supplies of these materials on land are limited. That’s led corporations to look for vast stores of them in underwater polymetallic nodules—aka, big rocks full of metal on the seafloor.
Countries like Japan, the UK and China are racing to be first to begin deep sea mining. And increasingly, cash-strapped Pacific Island nations, which are hot spots for the nodules companies are looking to exploit, are also considering allowing mining to diversify their economies. But the new report, released by watchdog MiningWatch Canada and coalition of environmental nonprofits Deep Sea Mining Campaign on Tuesday, shows that deep sea mining in the Pacific could cause extensive damage to ecosystems and island communities. Scientists are only just beginning to understand the deep sea as an ecosystem, but from what we do know, mining could come with huge risks.
Dredging up the seafloor for minerals could seriously threaten biodiversity. Bottom-dwelling creatures like coral and sponges live on the nodules, and since nodules don’t form quickly, the ecosystems wouldn’t recover in our lifetime. Research also shows that mining could disturb microbes that sequester greenhouse gases like carbon and methane, though exactly what their loss would mean for climate change is an area of active research.
“Each nodule takes millions of years to form,” Catherine Coumans, research coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, told Earther in an email. “Once mined, it is essentially lost forever in terms of human timescales.”
Mining could also create plumes of toxic sediment and loud noises, which could disrupt endangered marine species such as whale sharks, sperm whales, and leatherback turtles. Because commercial fish catches like tuna could also be disturbed, Pacific Island communities could also suffer.
“Communities that rely on marine species for their daily food security as well as for income from species...stand to be affected,” said Coumans.
Corporations have claimed that deep sea mining would be a boon to island economies, but the report says those claims are “unsubstantiated” at best. As an example, it cites Papua New Guinea, which was home to the first deep sea mining project. Last year, the country lost $120 million after the company behind the controversial project, Nautilus, went bankrupt.
The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority could pass commercial seabed mining legislation this July, opening an area larger than Mexico up for extraction and making deep sea mining the will be the single largest scale extractive industry in history.
Right now, there are no active mining projects, though there’s plenty of speculation and exploration. The potential is there, but the technology to actually go about digging up the seafloor and bringing finds back to the surface is still years away from being commercially ready. Nevertheless, 29 private companies have already been granted exploration licenses to sweep the seafloor in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans if the legislation passes. But in the new report, the 70 environmental groups who make up the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition are pressuring the UN to put a stop to the vote.
Instead, the report calls for the UN to instate a moratorium on deep sea mining until it can be clearly shown that the technology would not harm the environment or island communities. Otherwise, if island nations do allow mining, it could come at a devastating price.