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There’s a treasure trove on the seafloor—and that could be a bad thing

Rare minerals
might not sound as exciting as sunken treasure to you, but to
the mining
industry those materials could be literally more valuable than
gold. And there are few regulations in place yet to stop
deep
sea mining
from destroying the seafloor.

Right now the bottom of the ocean’s first line of
defense is the International Seabed Authority (not to be
confused with the International Waterbed Authority, which
dissolved back in the late ‘90s). They’ve been working on the
issue since they were first formed by the 1982 United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea, and they’ve been fighting an
uphill (upstream?) battle ever since. It’s not for lack of
action—they’ve enacted
regulations and proposed recommendations
—it’s for lack of
knowledge. We’ve only explored a tiny
percentage of the ocean and mapped little
of the seafloor, so it’s difficult to know where mining is
likely to take place or how it will affect the surrounding
waters.

But goodness knows that’s not stopping anyone from exploring
what’s down there. Recently a team of British scientists
found a
plethora of valuable minerals
atop an underwater mountain
called Tropic Seamount. It’s basically a huge flat-topped mound
of some of the scarcest materials on Earth. This particular
group was part of a research mission—and while they were
expecting to find rare minerals, they didn’t anticipate quite
so much of them. There’s the equivalent of one twelfth the
world’s supply of tellurium down there, which is used in
advanced solar panels,
plus rare earth elements that go into electronics.

That makes deep sea deposits valuable, and the fact that it’s
currently very expensive and time-consuming to mine them isn’t
likely to stop everyone. And you know what they say: if you
can’t stop ‘em, regulate ‘em. The million—or maybe
billion—dollar question is: how?

Even people who have spent their lives exploring the ocean
depths are unsure.
Cindy Van Dover
, who has ventured down in the submersible
Alvin both as a pilot and as a lead scientist for the
last several decades, explains that it’s hard to apply limited
knowledge of certain sections of the seafloor to the entire
thing.

“We know if they mine in some places they’re just going to rip
up the seafloor, so to some extent we know that there’s some
habitat destruction going on,” but she says, “There’s lots of
unknowns. There are organisms that have very long lives. There
are organisms that have very rapid reproduction that might seem
resilient, but they live at hydrothermal vents so they’re
really only endemic to small patch, and they’ll have to go find
another patch.”

Without knowledge of how mining effects will accumulate over
time, it’s challenging to create effective legislation.

We know what happens when we mine on land, so when authorities
create terrestrial mining regulations they know exactly what to
guard against. It’s not so easy in the ocean. But it’s vital
that we act now. “Once they begin, it’s going to be like deep
sea fishing, where it’s really difficult to manage,” says Van
Dover. “I feel like we have this opportunity right now to get
the regulations right.”

On the seafloor there are no disgruntled residents to complain
about mining impacts. Fish and microscopic
organisms can’t tell us they’re dying
—they just do. Those
living at deep sea vents and other major geological hubs—which
are likely to be more enriched in precious minerals—might be
especially vulnerable, since they don’t have large habitats.
Plus, they’re out in international waters, where no country has
the economic motivation to keep others in check. It’ll be up to
the International Seabed Authority to keep everyone in
line—that, and our innate desire to preserve nature. And that’s
always worked well in the past…right?

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