Tag Archives: experimental seabed mining

Experts Warn that Seabed Mining Will Lead to ‘Unavoidable’ Loss of Biodiversity

Tam Warner Minton/Flickr/CC-by-2.0

Daniel Oberhaus | Motherboard | June 27 2017

Seabed mining companies are going to wipe out species we don’t even know exist yet.

An international group of 15 marine scientists and legal scholars published a letter on Monday warning of the dire effects that the nascent seabed mining industry could have on bottom dwelling marine life.

The letter, published in Nature Geoscience, is the latest in a series of increasingly desperate pleas from marine scientists to pump the brakes on mining the seafloor until marine scientists are able to get a better idea of what the effects this industry will have on this woefully understudied area of the planet.

“Unlike on land, most of the biodiversity and ecosystem function in the deep sea is poorly understood,” Cindy Dover, a professor of biological oceanography at Duke University and one of the signatories to the letter, told me via email. “We have learned that the deep sea is as exquisitely diverse as any bit of shallow marine or terrestrial environment. What we don’t understand is how much we can degrade deep-sea ecosystems before we reach tipping points, where the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function affects the health of the ecosystem beyond levels that are acceptable to society.”

As such, Van Dover and the other signatories on the letter call for the International Seabed Authority, the UN-sanctioned regulatory body for the ocean’s floor, to recognize the risk posed by deep sea mining and communicate this risk to the public at large.

“We ask that biodiversity loss resulting from deep-sea mining be recognized and be part of the public discourse about mining,” Van Dover said. “The scientific community has been invited by the ISA to provide recommendations on responsible environmental practices for deep-sea mining. Our peer-reviewed letter responds to this invitation.”

Although the deep sea (defined as anything below a depth of about 650 feet) accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, we know remarkably little about what goes on down there. Dozens of new species are routinely discovered during forays to the bottom of the ocean and the deep sea ecosystem isn’t well understood.

Nevertheless, the deep sea has become the site of a new gold rush in recent years. The discovery of a wealth of precious minerals such as nickel and cobalt, in addition to oil and potentially lifesaving molecules have incentivized seabed mining operations to begin exploratory missions to the bottom of the ocean to start staking claims.

To get an idea of how this industry is developing, the authors of the recent letter point out that in 2001 there were only six contracts for deep sea mining operations. By the end of 2017, however, there will be 27 deep sea mining contracts. Of these, 17 will be in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Central America. One of the proposed mining contracts alone covers 32,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maine.

Although some proponents of deep sea mining argue that the effects of this industry can be offset by taking more environmentally friendly measures elsewhere, such as building artificial reefs, the authors of the letter are calling BS.

“The argument that you can compensate for the loss of biological diversity in the deep sea with gains in diversity elsewhere is so ambiguous as to be scientifically meaningless,” Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, said in a statement.

“This is like saving apple orchards to protect oranges,” Van Dover added.

For now, these contracts remain exploratory as the ISA struggles to establish a deep sea regulatory regime. But as the letter’s authors rightfully worry, it will be hard to establish effective seabed regulations since so little is known about the ocean floor.

“The ISA has begun working on regional environmental protection plans that include identifying networks of Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) within regions of interest to contractors,” Van Dover told me. “Mining and mining impacts would be excluded in these APEIs. Science-based recommendations for the design of these APEIs call for them to include representative habitats in the region.”

Until these regulations are in place, however, the authors of the letter call for the ISA to acknowledge that deep sea mining will certainly be harmful to deep ocean biodiversity. According to the authors of the letter, this damage will likely be irrevocable. Even more frightening is that we’d likely never know the full extent of the damage because marine scientists won’t have the opportunity to establish sufficient baseline measurements before the mining frenzy begins.

“I do not know if responsible seabed mining is possible, given knowledge gaps in our understanding of deep-sea biodiversity and function, and the possibility that the cost of good, science-based environmental management and monitoring may be too high at present relative to the value of the product,” Van Dover said. “There are ways to fill these knowledge gaps, but they require time and investment.”

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Proposed sea bed mining project in PNG in breach of International laws

NBC News via PNG Today | 24 June, 2017

The proposed sea bed mining project in Papua New Guinea will be in breach of International laws.

Catholic Professionals Society of PNG Executive and Environmental Lawyer Camillus Narokobi highlighted this recently, saying that there will be a breach to the freedom of navigation by international vessels if the project becomes a reality.

The project solwara 1, to be developed by Canadian Company, Nautilus Minerals in the New Ireland and East New Britain seas is set to begin in 2018.

“The area that is being targeted for sea bed mining falls within our jurisdiction, it is an area that falls under international law.

The passage between Rabaul and New Ireland is called St George Passage.

That is regarded as an International Strait, it is one of the seven international straits Papua New Guinea has, it is all within the Bismarck Archipelago.

And so both the New Ireland and East New Britain Provincial Governments have a right to say what has to be done or what should not be done.

And International rights include freedom of navigation, by ships and submarines that can come through those waters without giving prior notice.

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Plankton at risk from seafloor mining surveys

Zooplankton like these are vulnerable to the acoustic surveys used to search for oil and gas under the seabed.

The search for oil and gas deposits beneath the sea uses acoustic imaging techniques that are deadly to vital marine organisms, according to new research. Tim Wallace reports.

Cosmos | 23 June, 2017

Climate scientists are agreed that global warming will have significant long-term impacts on plankton, the creatures that underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems and which play a critical role in the planetary carbon cycle, though they are less sure what exactly those impacts will be.

But more immediate effects from human reliance on fossil fuels are now clearer, thanks to research that shows acoustic survey techniques used to explore the seafloor for oil and gas deposits is associated with the widespread death of plankton.

The study by marine scientists from Curtin University, in Western Australia, and the University of Tasmania has been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. It concludes that “potential large-scale modification of plankton community structure and abundance due to seismic survey operations has enormous ramifications for larval recruitment processes, all higher order predators and ocean health in general” and flags the “urgent need to prioritise development and testing of alternative surveying techniques”.

These results add to the growing body of evidence of the deleterious influence on marine life from man-made underwater noise, such as the disruption of whale behaviour from naval sonar use.

Oceanic exploration for petroleum resources is done through acoustic imaging, by firing intense, low-frequency sound impulses down into the seabed. Those impulse signals are produced by arrays of “air guns” that simultaneously shoot air at high pressure (13.8 MPa, or 2,000 psi) into the water. Acoustic echoes captured by strings of hydrophones enable sub-sea images to be generated.

While details of the global extent of such survey activity are scarce, the authors provide some sense of scale with statistics from Australian waters: during 2014 and early 2015, an average of 15,848 km of petroleum-related marine seismic surveys were completed every three months.

To determine the impact of such activity, the research team conducted experiments off the south-east coast of Tasmania, measuring the effect of a single air gun on zooplankton, the small marine animals that typically graze on the plantlike phytoplankton found in abundance at depths to about 200 metres. Sonar surveys and net tows were used to measure both abundance and the ratio of dead to live zooplankton both before and after air gun use.

The results: the average abundance of zooplankton caught in nets fell by more than 60% in the hour immediately after the air gun was fired, compared to control areas, and two to three times more dead zooplankton were found at all range groups for all taxa. This mortality rate was “more than two orders of magnitude higher” than what has been assumed by previous modelling studies.

Although they did not directly study the zooplankton for cause of death, the researchers offer a hypothesis: many marine invertebrates, including zooplankton, use mechanoreceptors to detect vibrations. For most zooplankton, these mechanosensory systems may be extremely sensitive, responding to air-gun impulses signal by ‘shaking’ to the point where damage could accrue to sensory hairs or tissue.

“Impacted animals might not die immediately after air gun exposure, but rather may be disabled in their sensory capacity with an accompanying loss of fitness and so increased predation risk through time,” the authors suggest.

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Seabed mining petition goes to select committee in NZ

Heta Gardiner | Maori Television | 22 June 2017

The issue to place a moratorium on seabed mining has once again made it to Parliament.

Local Government and Environment Select Committee were presented with a message from KASM (Kiwis Against Seabed Mining) to put a halt on seabed mining in New Zealand waters until a better understanding of the risks and impacts are provided.

Phil McCabe from KASM says, “There is a bunch of stuff out there that we have the opportunity to turn into money. And I get that, I see the attraction, I’m a business person myself. The question is whether we have the knowledge or the ability to do that, to extract that material in a safe and responsible way. We don’t have that knowledge now to do that safely.”

In September last year, Mr. McCabe lead a petition calling for a moratorium on all seabed mining which was later presented to Parliament. McCabe also said to the Select Committee today,

“The financial benefits of seabed mining may not be as vast as speculated.”

Rino Tirikatene from Labour was in Select Committee and agreed that a more cautious approach should be taken.

“We just need to ‘taihoa’ and do some proper research, and not put all the pressure on the communities to fight against all these corporate interests,” saysTirikatene.  

However, Nuk Korako of National says that a moratorium might not be the best solution.

“Do we need a moratorium on this? Taking into account, there has been a really robust system in place, and when you look at all those applications, actually most of them have been turned down,” says Korako. 

The Select Committee will be looking into Phil McCabe’s submission over the next week. 

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In the Depths of the Oceans, Human Activities Are Beginning to Take Their Toll

Edited Landsat 8 image of one of the deep blue holes in the Caribbean Sea. Once seen as too remote to harm, the deep sea is facing new pressures from mining, pollution, overfishing and more. (Photo: Stuart Rankin / Flickr)

Erik Vance| Truthout | June 13, 2017

Imagine sinking into the deepest parts of the Central Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Mexico and Hawaii. Watch as the water turns from clear to blue to dark blue to black. And then continue on for another 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) to the seafloor — roughly the distance from the peak of California’s Mount Whitney to the bottom of nearby Death Valley.

“As soon as you start to descend, all of the wave action and bouncing goes away and it’s like you’re just floating and then you sink really slowly and watch the light fade out through the windows and then you really are in another world,” says Erik Cordes, a researcher at Temple University and frequent visitor to the deep ocean.

Finally, you come to a stop 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) below the last bits of light from the surface. The water here is strangely viscous yet remarkably transparent, and the light from your flashlight extends for hundreds of yards. You are in the heart of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a region of the ocean seafloor roughly the size of the United States, populated by colorless invertebrates adapted in astounding ways to the sparse, crushing conditions found here.

And all around you — as far as the eye can’t see — are small, spherical rocks. Varying from microscopic to the size of a volleyball, they look like something stolen from the set of “Gremlins” or maybe “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

And they’re worth millions. Because inside these mysterious little eggs are untouched stores of copper, titanium, cobalt and especially manganese — crucial for making anything from the steel in your car’s frame to the circuitry that tells you how much gas is left in it. Some metals exist in larger quantities here than on all the continents of the world — and you had better believe they have caught the eye of mining companies.

The deep ocean, which in some places extends farther below Earth’s surface than Mt. Everest stands above, is facing threats from humans despite its remoteness.

It’s hard to draw a line exactly where the deep ocean starts. Starting at about 650 feet (200 meters), there’s not enough light to support photosynthesis, and at around 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) there’s no light at all. From there to the deepest spot, at the bottom of the 36,000-foot-deep (11,000-meter-deep) Mariana Trench between Japan and Papua New Guinea (deep enough to hold Mount Everest with New Hampshire’s Mount Washington stuck on top of it) is loosely defined as the “deep sea.”

However it’s defined, the deep sea today is a place of change. Human activities already are affecting it — and are poised, as these mineral stores suggest — to radically affect it even more in the decades to come. Attention we pay and decisions we make now could make all the difference in its fate.

Mining the Depths

The mineral riches of this deep ocean are vast and nearly untouched for now. But that’s changing as new technologies are allowing humans to access ever-deeper parts of the seafloor.

Current mining strategies break down along two rough categories. First is nodule mining — gathering up those bizarre seafloor billiard balls that have slowly collected minerals over the centuries as they trickled down like rain from above or seeped up from below and congregated around some central particle like rock candy around a string. There is no industry standard for sweeping up nodules so far below the surface — about 4,000 to 6,000 meters (13,000 to 20,000 feet) — though companies have proposed ideas as varied as deepwater vacuum cleaners and massive trawlers dragging across the seafloor. One 1985 study estimated 550 billion metric tons (610 billion tons) of nodules in the sea.

The second form of mining is targeted around sulfur vents and other types of seeps. These operations would be in shallower water — 4,000 to 12,000 feet (1,200 to 3,700 meters) — and look more like traditional mining operations scraping sulfur, phosphorus or precious metals from the sides of underwater ridges.

So far, all of these projects are theoretical. Most of the permits currently granted for deep-sea mining are for nodules, but the first ones to actually break ground are likely to be around ocean vents. Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company working off the coast of Papua New Guinea, has begun implementing a project to mine gold and copper at a ridge about 5,000 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface and in April began receiving equipment.

Company executives have pointed out that they have passed environmental impact reviews and that their project is friendlier to the Earth than other mining operations because the ore is so rich they can get more of it by disturbing less of the soil. But scientists point out that much remains unknown about what deep-water strip mining will do to the environment. In the case of ocean vents, there are some animals that may live only in that spot, and a single mine could wipe out entire species. In addition, both styles of mining would kick up potentially toxic plumes of ultra-fine sand that could travel hundreds of miles through a part of the ocean that has remained undisturbed for thousands of years.

“They’re going into new environments with a lot of environmental impacts,” says Lisa Levin, an expert in the deep sea at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “We are going to lose stuff before we ever discover it.”

Climate Change and the Deep Ocean

Because life in the deep ocean is more sensitive to change than in the shallows, the smallest shift in pH, oxygen or temperature can have huge effects. Thus, one of the most serious concerns about the deep ocean is climate change.

According to Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, a quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean. Some of it gets absorbed into the water itself or turns to particulate, thus lowering the pH and oxygen levels, and some is buried and turned to stone, where it effectively neutralized and stored for millions of years.

A quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean.Ironically, the deep ocean is one of the greatest mitigators of climate change as well, since it absorbs a massive portion of the Earth’s heat and CO2. In fact, one recent study showed that the ocean is absorbing phenomenally more heat now than ever before — about the same amount between 1997 and 2015 as it had in the previous 132 years. As a result, scientists are already seeing incremental temperature rise in the deep sea. Though less than at the surface, changes down there tend to represent more permanent ocean shifts.

Trickle Down Effects

Then there is chemical pollution. While mining the deep sea might be new, polluting it is not. Recent studies have found toxic terrestrial chemicals like PCBs and PBDEs in the tissues of animals living in the deepest places on Earth. In fact, where once scientists assumed the deep ocean was rather isolated from the surface, new studies have shown that the two are closely connected and that material can pass quickly into the depths.

The most spectacular example of this was the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico. It was assumed at the time that much of the millions of barrels of oil released by the faulty offshore drilling rig would float; they did not. It was assumed that the dispersant would neutralize the oil; in fact it was more toxic to deep sea corals than the oil itself.

“The probability of an accident goes up with depth,” and thus the potential for harming ocean life, Cordes says of deep-sea operations. “The deeper you go, the more stable the environment is; the more stable it is, the less those organisms can deal with changes.”

Cordes studies all sorts of pollution effects beyond the reach of sunlight. He and colleagues published pioneering research looking at the first evidence of acidification in the deep ocean in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Norway.

He says it’s easy to think of the deep sea as some kind of wasteland, while in fact it’s brimming with life.

“People don’t realize that there are massive coral reefs all over the Gulf of Mexico, there’s corals right off shore in California, there’s corals up in New England,” he says.

To overload this system or tinker with it at all is to play with fire.

“If we put something in the deep ocean, we pretty much can’t clean it up,” Thurber says.

And we can’t depend on the animals down there to adapt and clean up after us as they often do at the surface. Cordes says microbes at the surface can double their numbers in 12 hours; in the deep ocean it takes half a year. Because the generation time is so much slower, Thurber says, it takes decades for carbon-munching deep water microbes to battle, say, higher methane levels than the days or weeks it would take critters at the surface. Thus, our decisions around greenhouse gas emissions at the surface have now affected every ecosystem on Earth.

Permanent Decline

And it’s not just the microbes that grow slowly — fish in the deep ocean also take their time. As a result, fishing is another threat to the deep ocean. With most normal, surface fishing practices, it’s possible to manage a population such that what you take out is the same as what the population can replenish. But because fish found far from the surface grow slowly, some scientists have gone so far as to say that deep sea fishing is more analogous to mining than to fishing.

The classic case of this is the common slimehead. The slimehead is a delicious, bulky, dark red fish found from 180 to 1,500 meters (590 to 4,920 feet) below the surface in many of the world’s oceans. In the late 1970s, concerned that cod was on a permanent decline, seafood marketers in New Zealand began pushing slimehead under the more palatable name, orange roughy, because it turns orange after death.

Why this seemed like a good idea is a mystery. Slimehead spawn only 4 percent of the number of eggs as cod and take 20 to 30 years to reach maturity (rather than about two for cod). Within a couple decades the Australian government started reducing allowable harvest and then closing fisheries altogether as they tried to figure out catch limits that wouldn’t decimate the creature.

Some scientists now say there is no such number. One team estimated The New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries in 2009 estimated that a single 40-square-mile (100-square-kilometer) deep ocean fishery in the Pacific can only sustainably produce about 200 kilograms (400 pounds) of product per year. That’s about 57 adult slimehead. But that particular fishery produces 8,000 metric tons (9,000 tons) of slimehead per year. A similar story is playing out in other slimehead fisheries across the world, as well as other deepwater creatures like grenadiers, sharks and toothfish (otherwise known as Chilean seabass).

Direct Connection

In many ways, the deep sea truly is a new world waiting to be explored. But in our rush to exploit that new world, unless we think carefully about the impacts, we may find ourselves harming it before we even understand it — with implications for ourselves.

“[The deep oceans] are supporting these fish that we are depending on for food, they’re helping to recycle nutrients that come back to shallow waters, fuel the productivity of the ocean, produce half of the oxygen we breathe,” says Cordes. “We are directly connected to them.”

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Pacific Spotlights Sea Bed Mining at UN Ocean Conference

PIANGO | SCOOP | 9 June 2017

Activists and representatives from prominent Pacific Island organisations, led by the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), are taking part in a high-profile side event at the United Nations (UN) Oceans Conference at UN Headquarters in New York today. PIANGO is the Pacific Organising Partner for the UN NGO Major Group at the Oceans Conference.

The panel discussion, aptly themed “Voices from the Blue Frontier,” focused on a more sustainable approach to the “Blue Economy” and shared community experiences from the world’s first experimental deep sea mining project “Solwara One” in Papua New Guinea (PNG), highlighting environmental threats and rights violations of indigenous resource owners and local communities through deep sea mining.

The panel is featuring prominent speakers such as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), Francois Martel; Executive Director of PIANGO, Emele Duituturaga; Human Rights Attorney, Julian Aguon; Sarah Thomas nededog, PNG Catholic Cardinal John Ribat and Fair Oceans Expert, Kai Kaschinski.

The side event is designed to provide a platform for engagement and knowledge sharing on the underlying science of seabed mining and to highlight the need for strong governance measures to ensure that appropriate social and environmental safeguards are in place to protect against projected adverse effects of seabed mining in the Pacific Ocean.

“The United Nations Oceans Conference provides a further opportunity for multi-stakeholder participation and partnership building between governments, the private sector and civil society. This event is a demonstration of this inclusive approach and in particular, amplifies the voices of Pacific people, who have the greatest stake in the outcomes of the Oceans Conference,” Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of PIANGO explained.

“As Small Island Developing States, Pacific Island countries are particularly affected by these ocean developments. Our people rely largely on the ocean and marine resources for their livelihoods, while environmental pollution of oceans and climate change increasingly threaten existing economies.

“For many years, organisations of small-scale fishermen around the world have been fighting against ocean grabbing and the privatisation of fisheries resources. Deep sea mining is an example of such growth-oriented strategies and the unsustainable utilisation of marine resources. It disregards the rights of local communities and their livelihoods, and satisfies the resource needs of industrialised countries and emerging economies,” Ms Duituturaga said.

“Deep sea mining is not a strategy for sustainable development of Pacific Island countries. Deep sea mining and the negative impacts of climate change are based on the same failed model of development. Both threaten the health of the marine environment that is of such vital importance for Pacific Small Island Developing States. We have repeatedly reiterated that we need to rethink prevailing development models and approaches and reshape the Pacific we want.”

The Ocean Conference will result in a Call for Action that has been agreed to by countries, and which will be formally adopted at the conclusion of the Conference. Additional outcomes include the results of seven partnership dialogues that will focus on solutions, and the voluntary commitments to action.

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Gavana Juffa i wari long mining aninit long solwara long PNG

Gavana Gary Juffa na ol pikinini blong Awala long tubuna bilas

Papua New Guinea imas stopim tingting blong mekim wok mining aninit long ol solwara nogut ol pipal bai nap bungim bikpla heve tru long saed blong environment na tu sidaon blong ol.

Gavana blong Oro provins Gary Juffa i mekim despla toktok long sapotim askim tu blong lida blong Katolik Sios Cardinal John Ribat long noken go hed wantem despla kaen wok mining.

Wanpla kampani blong Canada em oli kolim Nautilus Ltd i wok long redi long mekim ol wok mining aninit long ol solwara long Bismark sea long New Guinea islands rijan namel long East New Britain na New Ireland provins.

Em i tok nogat wanpla kantri long wold i mekim despla kaen wok mining, na blong wonem na PNG i laik mekim.

Gavana Juffa i tok sopos emi Praim Minista bai emi stopim despla kaen wok.

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