We’ve come a step closer to seeing a brand new threat to the oceans - the government of Papua new Guinea has granted the world’s first license to mine the deep sea.
Hydrothermal vents are weird and wonderful ecosystems fuelled by bacteria that harness chemical energy from mineral-rich water that gushes up through cracks in the seabed.
And the seabed surrounding them is laced with metals including gold, silver, zinc and copper. But only recently has the technology advanced far enough to make mining these valuable minerals into a reality.
Cindy Lee Van Dover from Duke University in the US, has written into the journal Nature raising her serious concerns that before the deep sea is opened up to wholesale commercial mining, proper conservation plans urgently need to be put in place.
She admits that she would rather see hydrothermal vents left well alone. But that’s just not realistic given the relentless demand there is for minerals to fuel our gadget-hungry lifestyles.
Interestingly, she’s been working with Nautilus Minerals – the Canadian company granted this first mining license - partly because she says it offers her the chance to do research that as an academic she wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
We’re still a couple of years off, but their plans are to dig 20-30m down into the seabed over an area equivalent to about 10 football fields. And they say they’re going to leave a similar area of seabed nearby in a temporary marine reserve in the hope that it will help reseed the area they’ve mined.
But as Van Dover points out, at the moment we just don’t know whether this is going to work. We still have virtually no idea what impact mining will have or how quickly hydrothermal vent ecosystems will recover.
A big problem here is that there are currently no regulations that oversee what goes on in the deep sea in international waters, where many hydrothermal vents are found.
And with several other nations and companies are showing interest in mining the seabed, we don’t have long to figure this out.
Find out more
Cindy Lee Van Diver (2011). Tighten deep-sea mining regulations. Nature.