Mining minerals from Pacific seafloor

29 January 2019

Interview with 

Adrian Glover, Natural History Museum, London

SEA-CREATURE

Deep sea creatures from the Pacific seafloor

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In the latter half of the 20th Century, researchers discovered an abundance of mineral riches literally sitting on the Pacific seafloor. But at up to 5 kilometres down, they’re not easy to access, which is why they’ve remained largely untouched. But as the price of raw materials rises globally, these deeper deposits look increasingly more tempting to exploit. Apart from the depth though, another problem is that these deposits are sitting amongst an incredibly rich animal ecosystem and it’s one that we know almost nothing about, mainly for the same reason that we’ve left the minerals untouched. But before the gold rush begins, speaking to Chris Smith, Adrian Glover wants to see some basic science being done…

Adrian - There's really a remarkable story which is the story of the first attempts to explore the oceans, in particular the high seas, for mineral resources for metals such as cobalt, copper, nickel, which have always been of high value but now have even more value. We live in a time now where companies and contractors, industry are interested in exploring our high seas, collecting these minerals. It started in the mid 1960s, when John Mero, who was a geologist, published a remarkable book, which was really a call to arms in some ways for industry to start exploring particularly a place in the Central Pacific where these small potato-sized mineral accretions - manganese nodules - were; and it was really from the beginning a geological enterprise: can we extract and bring these minerals up and use them to provide an alternative source from terrestrial mining. And now it's major exploration activity and potentially a major environmental issue.

Chris - Why is it a major environmental issue?

Adrian - One of the sort of unique features of our deep oceans is that they are rich in biodiversity. The deep sea's are a remarkable environment. Of course it's very cold and very dark, very deep, separated from the surface oceans - we're talking about mineral extraction here in areas of depths of 4000 to 5000 metres. But the diversity is remarkably high. We don't actually know why. We know that it rivals, for example, actually tropical shelf environments in some cases, but, tragically, the problem that we really have is the lack of actual descriptions of what those animals are. Remarkably, this is really slowing down the process of actually making assessments of environmental impact.

Chris - The cynic in me is wondering whether there is this extraordinary biodiversity there because we haven't got there to mess it up yet?

Adrian - That's true to some extent this is an amazing wilderness area. Our deep ocean abyssal plains are almost half the surface of the planet. If you took away the water, the average depth of the oceans is three thousand eight hundred metres roughly. And humans have essentially not touched. There are some fundamental processes. I don't want to say it's the absence of human impact, but there are some fundamental and remarkable processes which maintain that diversity that we still don't really understand. But this is an environment which is unique and we are trying to understand that, and key to that understanding is actually taxon specific information. What I mean is, what animal is there. What does it look like. What's it most closely related to? What's its evolutionary origin? What kind of ecological role does it play in environment? We're talking about invertebrates mostly; there are vertebrates - fish - down in these environments as well. Nothing is known about them.

Chris - So are you advocating then that before we allow further exploitation of this area that we should advocate strongly that we go and study it properly so that we know what applecart we might be upsetting but equally how to minimise our impact?

Adrian - I think it's fair to say that everyone has really been advocating that, and I mean that from the point of view of the regulator, the high seas the International Seabed Authority, the contractors involved, governments involved. I haven't really met anyone in this day and age that says we should just go in guns blazing and ignore the environmental consequences. What I'm advocating is that we've missed a rather important step in the process, which is the taxonomic work to describe what that biodiversity is in those environments. It's a big challenge. We're looking at a large number of animals - there's no plants down there in a dark environment - all of which are undescribed and we need to know something about them. I don't believe that it's impossible task. I think in a 5 years timescale you could probably describe a thousand new species from an environment such as the central Pacific Mining-contracted areas. The problem has been gaining traction with the regulators and the contractors and the governments involved to fund that research one way or the other...

Chris - Who should fund it Adrian? Do you think this should be added on as a sort of surcharge? "If you seek to exploit this environment, the first thing that's got to happen before you're allowed to do it is you have to fund a research expedition to go and catalog and taxonomise what's in the area you're seeking to explore,"?

Adrian - To be fair to the regulator and the government's support the regulator they do state that at the moment so the regulations are such that only exploration activities are allowed. There is baseline data is to be collected. The costs are very very high and I think it is beholden on governments to help, you know, if they genuinely want to see industry move forward in a sustainable way. They also need to help that research and particularly at the very fundamental level.

Chris - Have you had conversations with those various stakeholders industry governments those people you are advocating to in order to see how receptive they are to this argument?

Adrian - I think they are receptive, and I think that that has been changing. I think what I've tried to make as argument in the piece is a sort of slightly more nuanced argument than we just need to know more things before we go there, which everyone has been saying from almost every side of the argument for decades - to here is some very specific recommendations, which is an achievable goal. And the interesting thing about the taxonomic work is you don't actually need to do it over and over. Once you've described the fauna and have a reasonable handle on that, the job is done and then we can move on! The work can move on to those which are expert in, for example, monitoring of sites over time; you know and people like me and the groups that work on the very fundamental biodiversity of the system we can move on to something else. I think that has been missed in the arguments, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to publish this. And it was very well-received by colleagues at the Seabed Author, by the regulator. This is exactly the kind of recommendations they need to move forward in this argument, from the sort of arm waving scientific argument that we need to know everything before we can do anything to hear some very specific recommendations on how you can solve this particular biodiversity impasse.

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