This might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, especially considering the obvious damage that’s done by terrestrial mining. Despite this knowledge, the rapidly-depleting terrestrial resources are leading mining companies to move their operations under the sea.
Nonetheless, research has revealed that deep-sea mining can cause damage that might take decades to heal from. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), deep-sea commercial mining is ‘imminent.’
The Issue at Hand
The ocean floor covers around 65% of the surface of the earth, making it a very attractive prospect for those in the mining industry.
Metals like aluminium, manganese, zinc, and copper – which are usually harvested from terrestrial mining sites – are becoming more difficult to find. This, coupled with an ever-increasing demand for these metals thanks to the rampant production of technology like smartphones and even green technologies (solar panels, etc). have led to an increased need to produce metals.
Unfortunately, deep sea mining has not been extensively researched and its potential impacts are unknown. IUCN believes that more studies are needed to determine the safety and efficacy of deep-sea mining.
What IUCN has stated, however, is that deep-sea mining and scraping the sea floor, coupled with industrial pollution, could lead to the extinction of entire species.
The Peru Experiment
One of the largest experiments done in regards to deep-sea mining happened 26 years ago off the shore of Peru.
The experiment, known as the DISturbance and reCOLonization (DISCOL) experiment, plowed groves into the sea floor. This mimicked the effects of real deep-sea mining, and the rocks that they targeted contained in-demand metals like copper and cobalt.
To recover the resources, the deep-sea miners have to dredge the sea floor. In addition to collecting the rocks, this process scrapes off a huge amount of sediment which many living organisms in deep-sea ecosystems thrive in.
One of the issues arising from this experiment was the health and safety of deep-sea microbes. Microbes are at the bottom of the food chain, and thus indirectly help to support every other creature in the food chain – including humans.
One test was done to assess the health of the microbes in the DISCOL region in 1996. The results showed that the health of the microbes were, indeed, adversely impacted.
Another test was run in 2015 by Tobias Vonnahme, microbial ecologist, and his colleagues. In the very same tracks carved in the DISCOL experiment, microbial activity was still reduced by about 30% compared to healthier areas.
This shows that deep-sea mining creates problems that can take decades – if not close to a century – to recover from.
Unfortunately for marine ecosystems, it looks like deep-sea mining is going to be a part of the future.
IUCN urges that mining companies mandate comprehensive studies to learn about how their activities can impact deep-sea life. Environmental impact assessments will also be required to minimize damage and ensure the good health of the marine ecosystem.
As long as mining companies proceed with caution and due diligence, it’s possible that the environmental impact may be reduced.