Spiralling prices for metals on the world market, especially those that are rare and involved in still-evolving technologies, together with depletion of onshore, high-grade reserves are beginning to make the opportunity of mining deep, ocean-floor resources attractive. By early 2018, fifteen companies had begun detailed economic assessment of one of the most remote swathes of the Pacific abyssal plains. In April 2018 (How rich are deep-sea resources?) I outlined the financial attractions and the ecological hazards of such ventures: both are substantial, to say the least. In Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Okinawa the potential economic bonanza has begun, with extraction from deep-water sulfide deposits of zinc equivalent to Japan’s annual demand for that metal, together with copper, gold and lead. One of the most economically attractive areas lies far from EEZs, beneath the East Pacific Ocean between the Clarion and Clipperton transform faults. It is a huge field littered by polymetallic nodules, formerly known as manganese nodules because Mn is the most abundant in them. A recent article spelled out the potential environmental hazards which exploiting the resources of this region might bring (Hefferman, O. 2019. Seabed mining is coming – bringing mineral riches and fears of epic extinctions. Nature, v. 571, p. 465-468; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02242-y).
Recording of the ecosystem on the 4 km deep floor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) began in the 1970s. It is extraordinarily diverse for such a seemingly hostile environment. Despite its being dark, cold and with little oxygen, it supports a rich and unique diversity of more than 1000 species of worms, echinoderms, crustaceans, sponges, soft corals and a poorly known but probably huge variety of smaller animals and microbes inhabiting the mud itself. In 1989, marine scientists simulated the effect on the ecosystem of mining by using an 8-metre-wide plough harrow to break up the surface of a small plot. A plume of fine sediment rained down to smother the inhabitants of the plot and most of the 11 km2 surrounding it. Four subsequent visits up to 2015 revealed that recolonisation by its characteristic fauna has been so slow that the area has not recovered from the disturbance after three decades.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), with reps from 169 maritime member-states, was created in 1994 by the United Nations to encourage and regulate ocean-floor mining; i.e. its function seems to be ‘both poacher and gamekeeper’. In 25 years, the ISA has approved only exploration activities and has yet to agree on an environmental protection code, such is the diversity of diplomatic interests and the lack of ecological data on which to base it. Of the 29 approved exploration licences, 16 are in the CCZ and span about 20% of it, one involving British companies has an area of 55,000 km2. ISA still has no plans to test the impact of the giant harvesting vehicles needed for commercial mining, and its stated intent is to keep only 30% of the CCZ free of mining ‘to protect biodiversity’. The worry among oceanographers and conservationists is that ISA will create a regulatory system without addressing the hazards properly. Commercial and technological planning is well advanced but stalled by the lack of a regulatory system as well as wariness because of the huge start-up costs in an entirely new economic venture.
The obvious concern for marine ecosystems is the extent of disturbance and ecosystem impact, both over time and as regards scale. The main problem lies in the particles that make up ocean-floor sediments, which are dominated by clay-size particles. The size of sedimentary particles considered to be clays ranges between 2.0 and 0.06 μm. According to Stokes Law, a clay particle at the high end of the clay-size range with a diameter of 2 μm has a settling speed in water of 2 μm s-1. The settling speed for the smallest clays is 1,000 time slower. So, even the largest clay particles injected only 100 m above the ocean floor would take 1.6 years to settle back to the ocean floor – if the water column was absolutely still. But even the 4,000 m deep abyssal plains are not at all stil, because of the ocean-water ‘conveyor belt’ driven by thermohaline circulation. An upward component of this flow would extend the time during which disturbed ocean-floor mud remains in suspension – if that component was a mere >2 μm s-1, even the largest clay particles would remain suspended indefinitely. Deepwater currents, albeit slow, would also disperse the plume of fines over much larger areas than those being mined. Moreover such turbidity pollution is likely to occur at the ocean surface as well, if the mining vessels processed the ore materials by washing nodules free of attached clay. Plumes from shipboard processing would be dispersed much further because of the greater speed of shallow currents. This would impact the upper and middling depths of the oceans that support even more diverse and, in the case of mid-depths poorly known, ecosystems Such plumes may settle only after decades or even centuries, if at all.
Processing on land, obviously, presents the same risk for near-shore waters. It may be said that such pollution could be controlled easily by settling ponds, as used in most conventional mines on land. But the ‘fines’ produced by milling hard ores are mainly silt-sized particles (2.0 to 60 μm) of waste minerals, such as quartz, whose settling speeds are proportional to the square of their diameter; thus a doubling in particle size results in four-times faster settling. The mainly clay-sized fines in deep-ocean ores would settle far more slowly, even in shallow ponds, than the rate at which they are added by ongoing ore processing; chances are, they would eventually be released either accidentally or deliberately
A mining code is expected in 2020, in which operating licences are likely to be for 30 years. Unlike the enforced allowance of environmental restoration once a land-based mining operation is approved, the sheer scale, longevity and mobility of fine-sediment plumes seem unlikely to be resolvable, however strong such environmental-protection clauses are for mining the ocean floor.