Researchers Fear Deep-Sea Mining May Destroy Rare Ecosystems
Several researchers warn that deep-sea mining will lead to the destruction of key hydrothermal vents, which host unique marine ecosystems. Furthermore, they urged countries to ban deep-sea mining: while the economic benefits are substantial, the destruction of biodiversity is inevitable.
In a paper titled Species Assembly Networks Identify Regional Connectivity Pathways Between Hydrothermal Vents in the Pacific Northwest, researchers explained that hydrothermal vents are unique deep-sea environments that spew hot water with minerals from cracks in the seafloor. While minerals and metals abound in these deposits, their extraction destroys critical marine ecosystems, the academics warned.
“These chimneys contain a large quantity and quality of gold, silver, copper and other rare earth minerals that we need to feed our technology-hungry community. Each hydrothermal vent often hosts some endemic species, meaning they only live there. So if you remove or severely damage their ecosystem, not only have you lost those animals, but you have lost that species entirely,” said Otis Brunner, an author of the paper and Ph.D. Candidate, the Okinawa institute of Science and Technology.
Brunner emphasized that the damage would go beyond the exploited hydrothermal vent ecosystem, affecting other vents kilometers away. While these vents are isolated, their species move from one vent to another due to ocean currents. The authors stressed that before deep-sea mining continues, the vents must be studied extensively to conserve their unique and vulnerable ecosystems.
The existence of rare minerals in the deepest part of the ocean has been known since the 1860s. The sea floor contains the same minerals found on land, as well as minerals unique to the ocean such as ferromanganese crusts, polymetallic nodules and seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits. Deep-sea reserves are estimated to be worth between US$8 trillion and US$16 trillion, as reported by Prospector. However, several countries have called for a global ban on deep-sea mining activities until more research is done and better technology is developed to take care of the environment.
Nevertheless, not all countries support this position. For instance, China is expected to remain the leader in deep-sea mining exploration efforts, while Nauru announced it will start exploring the ocean in June 2023. In addition, G7 countries said that they will allow deep-sea mining if it does not seriously damage the environment.
While Mexico does not carry out deep-sea mining yet, the country has a significant opportunity to do so. It has oceans on two sides and is located right next to the most prolific region for marine mining, the Clipperton Fracture Zone. Mexico’s mineral reserves have been estimated to contain 21 billion t of polymetallic nodules, which contain about 6 billion t of manganese, 226 million t of copper, 94 t of cobalt and 270 million t of nickel.