Could scraping the deepest part of the ocean save the planet?

United Nations body is resuming dialogue to mine the international seabed to extract materials crucial for the green energy transition.
Shubhangi Dua
Deep-sea mining could help countries transition to green energy
Deep-sea mining could help countries transition to green energy

Nuture / Canva  

As the planet experiences rapid climate change impacting the Earth’s most pristine ecosystems, scientists have been on the hunt for solutions to savor what’s left. 

For years, global authorities have been negotiating to mine the deep sea and look for material deposits and metals from the ocean’s seabed. 

Now the United Nations-backed operator – The International Seabed Authority is planning to resume negotiations and undertake long-awaited tasks that could help the planet transition to using green energy. 

AP news reports, “the authority will soon need to begin accepting mining permit applications, adding to worries over the potential impacts on sparsely researched marine ecosystems and habitats of the deep sea.”

Authorizing mining

With many companies and countries applying for permits to carry out mining operations in the ocean, however, scientists and activists are raising concerns about possible irreversible damage to the untouched ecosystem.

The UN further stresses that a plan to mine this unique and complex area of the planet could create an irreversible ecosystem and habitat loss while also permanently destroying invaluable carbon storage.

Despite the absence of regulations to govern the practice, The Economist says that the UN is considering permitting the world’s first commercial deep-sea mining application for metal.

“Deep sea mining involves removing mineral deposits and metals from the ocean’s seabed,” AP explains. The three types of mining include taking deposit-rich polymetallic nodules off the ocean floor, mining massive seafloor sulphide deposits, and stripping cobalt crusts from rock.

Deep-sea floor potential

The nodules, deposits, and crusts comprise minerals that could be useful for companies and countries to transition to efficient green energy. Minerals from the sea such as copper, nickel, aluminum, manganese, zinc, lithium, and cobalt could potentially fight climate change. 

The demand for these minerals has increased as they tap into renewable energy that is used to manufacture electric car batteries, solar, panels, and wind turbines, thus decreasing the reliance on fossil fuels.

The discussion to mine the deep ocean bed began in the 1960s but the narrative has become more important to pursue recently as governments look to move towards ambitious climate targets such as achieving net zero by 2050.

The Economist says that the process of deep-sea mining allows the retrieval of mineral deposits from the ocean below 200 meters – the deep seabed covering around two-thirds of the total seafloor.  

“Submersible crafts equipped with giant suction pipes creep across the seabed in rows, stirring up metallic objects the size of potatoes,” The Economist said, “the polymetallic nodules are sorted, with unwanted sediment flushed back into the sea.”

Sustainable practice?

In 2022, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) emphasized in a report that in the ocean’s current form, it’s hard to perceive a way in which the financing of deep-sea mining tasks is considered sustainable. The UN said that the activities may not be consistent with the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles. 

AP says that the engineering and technologies used for deep-sea mining are still evolving with some companies looking to vacuum materials from the seafloor using massive pumps. 

On the other hand, some scientists are evolving smart technology using artificial intelligence (AI) by training deep-sea robots to harvest nodules from the sea floor. 

Additional efforts are also being made to develop advanced machines that have the ability to mine materials from the surfaces of massive underwater mountains and volcanoes.

The UN-backed body which overlooks the development of seafloor mining regulations, ISA's Legal and Technical Commission, is set to meet in early July to negotiate the soon-to-be mining code draft.

"The earliest that mining under ISA regulations could begin is in late 2024 or 2025. Applications for mining must be considered and environmental impact assessments need to be carried out" said AP.

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