Extracting the science : a century of mining research

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But still life thrives. The deep sea contains a vast array of ecosystems that researchers have barely begun to study. Miners have focused on three environment types to explore for potential harvesting. Abyssal plains such as the CCZ are littered with metallic nodules that form over millions of years as minerals precipitate around fish teeth, bones or other small objects.

Seabed mining is coming — bringing mineral riches and fears of epic extinctions

These regions are some of the quietest, most remote ecosystems on the planet, where fine sediment rains down at a rate of about one centimetre every 1, years. That low-energy environment is home to polychaete worms, crustaceans, sponges, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittlestars, sea urchins and various deep-sea fish, as well as countless microbial species and tiny sediment-dwelling creatures. Another type of mineral deposit is the metal-rich crust that covers seamounts, which rise thousands of metres above the abyssal plains. These coatings are packed with high-value metals, such as cobalt, platinum and molybdenum.

The seamount environment is dominated by corals, sponges and other filter feeders as well as tuna, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles. Deep sea creatures found near a mid-ocean ridge in the southern Indian Ocean. Clockwise from top left: an anemone, a brittle star, Acanthogorgiidae coral and a pencil urchin.

A third form of mineral deposit that is attracting attention is massive sulfides — rich in copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver.

Extracting the Science: A Century of Mining Research - Google книги

These ores form around vents of superheated water that occur along the volcanic ridges running through ocean basins. The hydrothermal vents support creatures such as the small, blind yeti crab Kiwa tyleri with its characteristic blonde, furry hair, and the scaly-foot snail Chrysomallon squamiferum , which armours its soft interior with an iron shell and is the first deep-sea animal to be declared endangered because of the threat of mining. Nautilus Minerals in Toronto, Canada, was pursuing that project, but financial difficulties and local opposition derailed the venture, leaving the CCZ as the most likely test bed for deep-sea mining.

Sources: Map: M. Hannigton et al.

Extracting the science; a century of mining research; proceedings.

Nature Geosci. Hein et al. Ore Geol. Companies are steadily moving forward with plans to exploit the minerals in the CCZ. The International Seabed Authority ISA — a member body created by the United Nations to both promote and regulate sea-bed mining — has, in the past decade, granted 29 exploration licences for contractors sponsored by national governments to explore mineral wealth at a number of deep-sea locations. Deep-sea biologist Craig Smith at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu has spent 30 years studying the communities in the CCZ, where he has collected sea cucumbers, sea urchins, soft corals, starfish, sea anemones, worms and much more.

Among these are rare species not found anywhere else in the deep sea. Smith thinks that, even now, scientists have sampled just 0. In one single UK claim area of 55, square kilometres, Smith and his colleagues were surprised to collect more than 1, animal species, which they estimate is less than half the total number living there. Although deep-sea mining threatens some of these species, it has also raised awareness of the biodiversity of the sea-floor environment.

By law, mining contractors are required to assess what lives in their claim area, and Smith and many other deep-sea biologists conduct ecological surveys to help contractors establish this baseline. And prospective miners can carry out tests to understand how their equipment will impact the environment they are working in.

A blind yeti crab Kiwa tyleri from a hydrothermal vent area in the southern Indian Ocean. The aim of such studies is to help miners and the ISA reduce any potential harm from the industry and to develop environmental management plans. But many researchers say that the system has not worked well in practice, in part because the requirements for baseline data are weak.


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The data have been confidential, but are becoming publicly available this month. Another concern among researchers is that there are no requirements to test the environmental impacts of the giant mining machines before commercial extraction begins. Since , only 12 small-scale tests have been done on nodule mining, most using a narrow, roughly 2. Section Navigation.


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