How rich are deep-sea resources?

My first task as a Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the British Open University, from 1971 onward, was to write teaching materials about the economics, formation and geological setting of metal resources. Much of the content was about the full range of ‘conventional’ metal ores, but something being publicised as having huge potential intrigued me. This concerned manganese-rich nodules (with the aesthetic appeal of unwashed potatoes) and crusts found sitting on top of sediments of the abyssal ocean floor, at depths between 3 to 5 kilometres.  While manganese is by no means a rare element and occurs in vast ore reserves on the continents, the nodules contain unusually high concentrations of other, more valuable metals, such as copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt and lead. Some contained more than 3% of Cu, Ni and Co combined, above the ‘grades’ of economic deposits of ores of the individual metals on land. This was the source of their potential: simple, albeit very deep dredging of the nodules would provide multi-metal ore of very high profitability. Moreover, the nodules are in truly vast tonnages (about 10 kg m-2) and continually grow by precipitation from seawater in the underlying sediments at a few millimetres per million years – they are renewable resources.

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the...
Manganese nodules from the Pacific abyssal plains. (credit: Wikipedia)

A variety of reasons, not the least of which was the vexatious question of ownership of sea-floor resources far from land, have meant that commercial operations have yet to begin. However, spiralling prices for metals on the world market together with depletion of on-shore, high-grade reserves are beginning to make the opportunity of nodule mining irresistible. Fifteen companies, with licence areas issued by the intergovernmental  International Seabed Authority of around 75 000 km2 each, are now engaged in economic assessment of one of the most remote swathes of the Pacific abyssal plains (Peacock, T. & Alford M.H. 2018. Is deep-sea mining worth it? Scientific American, v. 318(5) (May 2018 issue), p. 63-67). There are several controversial issues surrounding deep-sea mining. First, dredging, like beam trawling disturbs and destroys ocean-floor ecosystems and turns bottom water turbid, the very fine grain size of sediments resulting in settling being very slow ( about 1 mm s-1). Second, preliminary ore processing on board dredging vessels results in plumes of turbid and metal-rich slurry in the wakes, threatening surface and mid-water ecosystems. Such plumes will rapidly spread far from operational areas in surface current systems, eventually to smother pristine areas of ocean floor. Re-examination of areas of experimental dredging from 30 years ago have revealed that they are still sterile of lifeforms larger than 50 micrometres. Added to these effects, onshore processing will produce large amounts of waste – about 75% of the volume of dredged nodules. Conventional mines eventually backfill their excavations, but with nodule mining disposal would be an environmental nightmare.

Japanese sea-floor mining machine. (credit: Japan Times)

Economically, it seems that nodule dredging is potentially highly profitable. To break even requires lifting about a million metric tons, which would yield of the order of 37 000 t of Ni, 32 000 t of Cu, 6000 t of Co and 750 000 t manganese. If all 15 companies begin extraction, production at these levels will have a downward effect on world metal prices, tending to undercut production from conventional mines. One little-considered issue is that the ‘blend’ of metals from nodules will not match the industrial demand for each of them, further destabilising markets. Added to mining of the abyssal plains, plans are well advanced for multi-metal mining of massive sulfide deposits forming at hydrothermal vents or ‘black smokers’ along mid-ocean ridge systems, in which gold figures strongly. Only a few Pacific island states have resisted the ‘promise’ of such operations. Japanese companies are already mining the seabed off Okinawa within their own offshore waters and seemingly are producing zinc equivalent to the country’s annual consumption as well as gold, copper and lead.

Are coral islands doomed by global warming?

Among the most voluble and persistent advocates of CO2 emissions reduction are representatives of islands in the tropics that are built entirely of reef coral. All the habitable land on them reaches only a few metres above high-tide level, so naturally they have more cause to worry about global warming and sea-level rise than most of us. Towns and villages on some atolls do seem to be more regularly inundated than they once were. So a group of scientists from New Zealand and Australia set out to check if there have been losses of land on one Pacific atoll, Funafuti, during the century since tidal observatories first recorded an average 1.7 mm annual rise in global sea level and a faster rate (~3 mm a-1) since 1993 (Kench, P.S. et al. 2015. Coral islands defy sea-level rise over the past century: Records from a central Pacific atoll. Geology, v. 43, p.515-518).

English: Funafuti (Tuvalu) from space Magyar: ...
Funafuti atoll (Tuvalu) from space (credit: Wikipedia)

Funafuti atoll comprises 32 islands that make up its rim, with a range of sizes, elevations, sediment build-ups and human modifications. The atoll was first accurately surveyed at the end of the 19th century, has aerial photographic cover from 1943, 1971 and 1984 and high-resolution satellite image coverage from 2005 and 2014, so this is adequate to check whether or not sea-level rise has affected the available area and shape of the habitable zone. It appears that there has been no increase in erosion over the 20th century and rather than any loss of land there has been a net gain of over 7%. The team concludes that coral reefs and islands derived from their remains and debris are able to adjust their size, shape and position to keep pace with sea level and with the effects of storms.

English: Looking west from a beach on Fongafal...
Beach on Fongafale Islet part of Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. (credit: Wikipedia)

This is an observation of just one small community in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, so is unlikely to reassure islanders elsewhere who live very close to sea level and are anxious. It is a finding that bears out longer-term evidence that atolls remained stable during the major sea-level changes of the post-glacial period until about 7 thousand years ago when land glaciers stabilised. Since coral grows at a surprisingly rapid rate, that growth and the local redistribution of debris released by wave action keep pace with sea-level change; at least that taking place at rates up to 3 mm per year. But the study leaves out another threat from global warming. Corals everywhere are starting to show signs of ill thrift, partly resulting from increasing acidity of seawater as more CO2 dissolved in it and partly from increases in sea-surface temperature, as well a host of other implicated factors. This manifests itself in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching that may presage die-off. Should coral productivity decrease in the Pacific island states then the material balance shifts to land loss and sea level will begin an irresistible threat.

How the great Tohoku-Sendai earthquake and tsunami happened

The great Tohoku earthquake (moment magnitude 9.0) of 11 March 2011 beneath the Pacific Ocean off the largest Japanese island of Honshu resulted in the devastating tsunami that tore many kilometres inland along its northern coast line and affected the entire Pacific Basin (see NOAA animation of the tsunami’s propagation) .

English: Sendai Rinkai Railway locomotive(SD55...
Railway locomotive thrown aside by the 11 March 2011 Tsunami in Japan. (credit: Wikipedia)

This article can now be read in full at Earth-logs in the Geohazards archive for 2017

Hi-tech future may be saved by ocean floor sediments

Global rare earth element production (1 kt=106...
China's growing REE market share. Image via Wikipedia

Since the now far-off founding of the Club of Rome and the re-emergence of Malthusian ideology, time and again there have been warnings about the imminent running out of resources that are essential for modern life. The latest concern one of the formerly haunted wings of the Periodic Table, central to petrogenetic geochemistry, but little else; the rare-earth elements. From early beginnings as the source for phosphors in the screens of colour televisions all 15 REEs now have a growing commercial role in applications ranging from precision guided weapons, night-vision goggles and stealth technology in the military sphere, through the satiation of artificial appetites for electronic gaming and mobile phones, to applications of super-efficient magnets in medial scanners and ‘green’ power generation. The crisis being discussed currently is not so much a shortage – REEs are not so rare – but the cornering of their mining by the Peoples’ Republic of China, which produces more than 95%  of RREs used at present (~120 thousand tons). Yet world reserves are estimated at almost 100 million t, of which China has 36 million. Mining is often in only a few known, high-grade deposits; for instance most of the US reserves of 13 million t are locked in the Mountain Pass Mine, California that is currently on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ regime, i.e. shut. This one-sided economy sends shudders through capital’s strategy forums, i.e. in the US, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, geochemists and oceanographers from Japan, the world’s most hi-tech country, have bent their collective will to finding alternative sources, and may have revealed one in an unexpected location (Kato, Y. et al. 2011. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 535-539).  Their work stems from ‘mining’ existing geochemical data from deep-sea drilling projects on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, that reveal a wide range of REE concentrations in the ooze coating the seabed: from <250 to >2000 parts per million. The richest pickings seem to lie in a swath either side of the East Pacific Rise at around 15°S, where the group estimate that a 1 km2 plot could yield about one fifth of current world annual production, even though REE concentrations lie way below their on-shore economic cut-off grade. Apart from the need for dredging at depths around 3-5 km on the abyssal plains, and the inevitability of destroying a largely unknown ecosystem, the positive aspect of these metal-rich oozes is that the REE can be extracted simply by acid leaching of the goethite (FeOOH) in which the bulk of the elements reside. Goethite is something of a geochemical ‘mop’ with a capacity for adsorbing elements of all kinds on grain surfaces; so much so that it is being considered as a means of cleaning up heavy-metal pollution. Both the REEs and the iron probably arise from seabed hot springs where oxidising conditions result in dissolved ferrous iron combining in ferric form with oxygen to form goethite, which in turn scavenges other dissolved ions. Many of the on-shore REE deposits are carbonatites (intrusions of carbonate-rich magmas) that contain fluoro-carbonates and phosphates that host the REE, or beach sands in which wave swash concentrates the durable heavy phosphates in so-called black-sand deposits. Carbonatites are rare, most occurring in ancient ‘shields’, as in southern Africa, Canada and China, but being so unusual are not difficult to find.  One in the Canadian Shield known as the Big Spruce Lake deposit provides phosphorus- and potassium-rich soil that encourages the growth f conifers and so creates a geobotanical anomaly of large trees where local climate generally supports only stunted ones.

The rising demand and currently restricted supply of REEs is creating an exploration boom for carbonatites as the metal prices rise inexorably. Yet it may also produce a shift to what seems to be an alternative kind of source; iron-rich deep-sea sediments, though more likely those preserved on-shore in ophiolite complexes than at the huge depths of the abyssal plains. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that oceanographers and geochemists have pointed to untold metal riches before: manganese nodules that litter huge tracts of the seabed and contain sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to maintain supplies for millennia. Despite a half-billion dollar investment in the 1960s and 70s, there is no nodule-dredging industry. There are however well-advanced plans for deep water mining of gold-rich hydrothermal sites, but miners will go just about anywhere to gloat over Marx’s ‘money commodity’