A very deep trouble

Seabed mining

Ramaharitha Pusarla | The Hans India | 1 July 2018

Almost 44 years ago, on July 4, 1974, CIA launched a covert sea operation with an aim of stealing Russian submarine, K-129 a ballistic nuclear missile carrier, almost 2,500 km from north-west of Hawaii, six years ago. To divert the attention of Russian spies and give the operation a deliberate spin, CIA under the garb of harvesting rocks in the seabed launched an operation-Project Azorian.

Nature has been a source of incredible wealth. From times immemorial, mankind greedily plundered nature for material gains. Breaching yet another pristine frontier, countries are making plans to ransack deep blue seas. Termed as Deep-Sea Mining (DSM), employing advanced technology, at breath-taking pace nations are vying to harvest nodules and rocks that constitutes the seabed. DSM entails extraction of minerals located 400 to 6,000 metres below the sea level.

Outwardly, while the vessel was fitted with all the machinery needed for excavating the seabed, Hughes Glomar Explorer housed a monstrous capture vehicle with a giant set of claws to retrieve the submarine and keep it hidden. By July 30, away from the prying eyes of the world, Americans located the submarine. But the capture vehicle suffered a damage while lifting the submarine. The giant claw broke under immense strain midway and most of the submarine slipped back.

In the run-up to the operation, CIA sent scientists for conferences on ocean mining and roped in billionaire inventor, Howard Hughes, to build a vessel for scientific exploration. The great PR strategy of CIA stuck chord with the US universities, that mulled introducing specific courses on deep sea mining. Even UN jumped in and offered to provide a rules-based approach to determine rights to ocean minerals.

The team managed to recover only the front portion. Despite the difficulties and the huge costs involved in carrying out the project, American desperately wanted to steal the submarine for obvious military reasons. To get hold of Russian nuclear missiles and to penetrate their naval communications, unmindful of the consequences, CIA went ahead with this cost prohibitive exercise. 

When CIA broke the details of the project after a year, mining companies who made extensive plans of mining seas were crestfallen and the stocks tumbled. However, CIA’s success proved that with sophisticated engineering techniques and lavish funds, DSM can be possible. Ever since companies invested heavily in research expeditions to probe the seabed for minerals.  

For the first time, scientists abroad, Royal Naval Ship, HMS Challenger found that deep seabed contains huge mineral deposits. First dredging exercise revealed the presence of nodules rich in manganese, nickel and iron in the ocean beds of Indian and Pacific Ocean.  Soon scientists confirmed that a tonne of the seabed is 10 times richer in mineral content than mines on land. Independent investigations by different teams confirmed this fact who declared sea beds as treasure houses of minerals and Rare Earth Elements (REE). 

By 1960s, scientists floated the idea that oceans should be used for peaceful purposes and their mineral wealth should be shared equally by the humanity. While the issue of ocean mining hardly evinced any interest in countries then, extensive use of mobile phones, solar panels, batteries, wind vanes, electric cars and other gadgets increased demand for indispensable REE. 

Nations are now competing for the scarce REE’s in the earth’s core. Owing to the rapid scale of sophistication appetite for Lithium, Cobalt, Copper has surged to phenomenal levels. Pitched battles are witnessed between nations for the limited supply of Cobalt. Republic of Congo, which currently has 60 per cent of global resources has now become a den for corruption, human rights abuse. 

Responding to Amnesty International’s report that sought a solution for exploitative mining and alleged dominance of smuggling mafia in Congo, Michael Lodge, Chairman of ISA, International Seabed Authority called for a relook at deep sea mining. 

To streamline various activities related to it. Intergovernmental body, ISA, came into existence in 1994 with headquarters at Kingston. It formulates rules and regulations for mineral-related activities in the international seabed region, the area beyond the limits of the jurisdiction of individual countries. 

ISA, which has observer status to UN has divided the ocean bed into blocks and 29 exploration areas. Companies from 19 countries have purchased mineral prospecting licences for 15 years as of now. ISA proposed three types of mining – Polymetallic manganese nodules, Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic sulphide mining at hydrothermal vents. 

For the first time, a venture Nautilus Minerals commenced its exploration in Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji after negotiations with respective governments of the Bismarck Sea. While the mining hasn’t started yet, all the preparations for rock breaking are going at frenetic pace. The stretch identified in the seabed is covered by hydrothermal vents, which are shelters for vast communities of extremely rare marine life like shrimps, snails and tubeworms. 

Use of gargantuan machinery during mining is bound to damage the marine habitat of the region, poverty-stricken countries lured by the attraction of money have accepted the deal. Though the mining company has undermined the fears of residents whose lives and livelihoods are irretrievably linked with sea waters. Disturbed by the impact of the exploratory phase that led to sharp decline in sharks, citizens of Tonga, Papua New Guinea have launched protests and campaigns against DSM.

After Japan’s successful attempt to mine ore deposits in 2017, which included – Zinc, Copper, Gold and Lead off the coast of Okinawa close to hydrothermal vents, there is a global rush for DSM. Elucidating the impacts of such mad rush, a paper published in Harvard Environmental Law Review warned nations of the adverse impacts of DSM on the environment, lives of indigenous people and the biodiversity of marine habitat. 

Hydrothermal vents act as environmental sinks with microorganisms in the vicinity sequestering huge amounts of carbon and methane (Greenhouse Gases). Recently, researchers discovered over 300 animal species endemic to vents making each vent unique. They now hypothesize that perhaps life must have evolved from hydrothermal vents, which can thrive even higher temperatures of up to 113C. Destruction of the vents might lead to the release of sequestered methane triggering a doomsday climatic event. 

Latest scientific breakthroughs revealed that deep seas absorb the excess heat generated by Greenhouse Gases. Oceans have been instrumental in mitigating the climatic change impacts.

DSM, which involves the use of heavy machinery that would chip, scrap and break the rocks. All these events invariably disturb the seabed, generate large sediment plumes and discharge wastes into seas. 

Till now, mankind irreversibly damaged the oceans and seas through deep-sea oil and gas extraction, discharge of wastes including nuclear wastes, dumping plastics, leakage of oils from vessels, etc. Scientists claim unlike surfaces of Moon, Mars or Venus, which were meticulously mapped, the invaluable diversity of marine life is largely unknown. 

Mariners are just beginning to understand the climatic role of hydrothermal vents. These geographical formations hold a key to unravel the secrets of evolution and adaptation of life on earth. At this juncture, dishevelling the deep seabed for commercial purposes may be counterproductive and tragic.

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Filed under Financial returns, Environmental impact, Papua New Guinea, Pacific region

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