The International Seabed Authority (ISA) have announced that licences for deep-sea mining can be applied for from as early as 2016, but type in “deep-sea mining petition” into google and there are countries of people who object to this.
Natural resources are not going to be available forever. This is fact. They may last throughout our lifetime, but society is guzzling these from Earth faster than the Earth can provide. Seabeds, however, are rich in minerals and “one square kilometre could meet a fifth of the world’s annual consumption of rare metals and yttrium” (phys.org, 2011). Deductibly then, deep-sea mining which refers to methods of extracting minerals and metals from the seabed seems like a good idea. Yet detrimental drawbacks will inevitably arise from exploiting this method.
Oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, so islanders are surely marginal in comparison, right? The debate is unfortunately not as simple as that. The biggest drawback being environmental issues and secondly financial factors. The environmental issues include maintaining biodiversity, contamination and increased pollution levels. Financial factors include the cost to protect biodiversity and the amount to carry out the operation. Biodiversity cannot be disregarded. It is vital in regulating climate and atmospheric gases, cycling water and nutrients; also the greater the diversity of the Earth’s species the easier it is for all life forms to sustain themselves – the recent depletion of fish populations is already a great hindrance to any involved in the fishing industry, which is due to over fishing the oceans. So, although humans are the dominate species, humans need other species to keep the ecosystem in-check. It is all about having a symbiotic relationship.
In-keeping with the above, ISA has issued a set of rules and regulations for deep-sea mining that state conservation and environmental issues are attended to. Conservation objectives include protected sites that are adequate to sustain biodiversity in all its forms. These protected areas also act as ‘control’ areas, this is so the effects of human impact can be measured; this is featured in ISAs rules and regulations. Education on environmental issues is taking place. However, faith in protected areas actually being designated is extremely low, considering the prolonged legislation of Marine Conservation Zones to come into act. On the flip side deep-sea mining may be beneficial for conserving protected areas.
In practice, deep-sea mining involves ‘ore pick-up’ that causes direct destruction and disruption of benthic habitats and organisms including noise and light pollution. Furthermore groundwater is introduced to these habitats, and groundwater does not have the same minerals and carbon dioxide as the seawater, and inevitably degrades the quality of the sea water causing disruption to the ecosystem. On top of this ‘ore-lifting’ disrupts mid-water species. Thirdly, ‘de-watering discharges’ cause temperature anomalies, excess nutrients and decreased oxygen levels. Fourthly, the ‘onboard processing’ produces wastewater discharges due to processing chemicals and accidental discharges of fuel, oil and processing agents. Fifthly, transporting the ore to land further disrupts fish, marine mammals and birds, additionally accidental discharges are likely to happen in harbours and traffic flow will significantly increase. Lastly, ‘metallurgical processing’ emits air emissions and will impact utility bills according to Environmental Planner Dr Morgan.
In retort, resources are much more concentrated in the seabed than those on land. This means a significantly smaller area of earth needs to be mined in order to extract the same amount of usable minerals. This has the added effect that less materials need to be processed, and it is this procedure that has the most damaging effect on the environment. Also, current technology minimizes the amount of sediment heaved-up from the seabed habitat.
During hydrate extraction from seabeds, a method used to obtain the gas that’s used for central heating and powering gas cookers, accidental release of gases such as methane occur. If this exceeds a threshold, then methane could end up in the water supply, and this is toxic. Also mining for phosphates opens the risk of land contamination with Cadmium and Uranium.
The crux of this issue is whether or not the resource benefits outweigh the financial and environmental factors. Despite any precautions taken marine biodiversity will be reduced at the mining locations, but the impact may not be as severe as first thought. Thus where resources are extremely rich, and if conservation legislation is strictly adhered to, then deep-sea mining is potentially feasible long-term, but what are the alternatives?