Study examines intact wilderness of the world’s largest future sea-mining hotspot

A new study sheds light on the biodiversity found in the world's largest mineral exploration region.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Yellow Sea Cucumber on the ocean floor.
Yellow Sea Cucumber on the ocean floor.

Francesco Ricciardi/iStock 

The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy necessitates the exploration of more and more natural resources discovered in previously unexplored areas of the planet. 

That’s why the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean has become a region of great interest in recent years. It is a vast mineral-rich region spread across an area of six million square kilometers. And holds great prospects for future sea mining activities. 

However, this deep sea region is also home to many marine creatures that may be endangered due to human intervention. A new study sheds light on the biodiversity found in the world's largest mineral exploration region.

Documenting the marine wildlife 

It is said to be the region's first comprehensive checklist that includes a record of the spotted species. 

The new checklist includes information on 27 species, 49 classes, 163 orders, 501 families, and 1119 genera of marine creatures. Of the 185 species recorded, only six (sea cucumber, a nematode, and a carnivorous sponge) have been recorded elsewhere, implying they are likely unique to the CCZ. Furthermore, the list includes a large number of arthropod species, such as shrimp and crabs. 

‘Taxonomy is the most important knowledge gap we have when studying these unique habitats. We have to know what lives in these regions before we can begin to understand how to protect such ecosystems,” said Adrian Glover, co-author of this study, in an official statement. 

Study examines intact wilderness of the world’s largest future sea-mining hotspot
A selection of deep-sea specimens from the museum’s collection.

The Natural History Museum's research team combed through over 100,000 records from seven different sources, including data from research expeditions dating back to the 1970s. They also gathered information about the species from the International Seabed Authority's (ISA) DeepData platform. According to the official statement, ISA has urged mining exploration companies to collect and share environmental data during their projects. 

“DeepData is one of the tools that has significantly increased our knowledge of the CCZ, but we would still predict there are 6000-8000 more unknown animal species meaning around 90 percent of species in the CCZ are not known to science,” said Muriel Rabone, who is the data manager and analyst at the NHMDeepSea research group.

With this huge figure, the team believes the number of unknown species in this zone is similar to the global ocean scenario. 

The deep-sea mining region

The CCZ is one of the world's few remaining areas of intact wilderness in the ocean. Despite this, the biodiversity of the region is poorly understood. 

It has been able to preserve a plethora of biodiversity because mining activities in the region have yet to begin.

The NHM states, “Commercial deep-sea mining is currently prohibited in areas beyond national jurisdiction, but companies are allowed to run exploratory operations in such areas to assess their mineral wealth and measure environmental baselines.”

There are currently 17 contracts for mineral exploration in areas as large as 1.2 million square kilometers. 

Deep-sea mining has recently seen increased demand as countries seek more clean energy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming. Furthermore, green energy relies heavily on raw materials such as polymetallic nodules found in deep sea beds. Copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, and rare Eart elements are among the valuable resources found in these. It has a wide range of applications, including fuel, electronics, and batteries, among others.

With the threat of mining looming in this valuable region, it is critical to understand the marine life that thrives here to save them from becoming extinct.  

“We are on the eve of some of the largest deep-sea mining operations potentially being approved. It is imperative that we work with the companies looking to mine these resources to ensure any such activity is done in a way that limits its impact upon the natural world,” said Glover.

The results have been reported in the journal Current Biology.

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