The fight for the seabed will shape our relationship with nature forever

Posted On: 
12th July 2019

If the final frontier of humanity is to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life, and boldly go where no man has gone before, then look not up, but down, writes Samuel Place. 

Credit: 
PA Images

We know less about the deep ocean than we do about the surface of Mars. What was once thought to be a barren desert many miles below the surface has again and again shown itself to be a panacea of biodiversity and rare minerals, home to undisturbed lifeforms hitherto unimagined or thought to be lost to time.

Learning more about these ecosystems could shed light not only on the history of life on Earth, but also teach us how to survive in the harshest environments, including outer space, and give us access to materials and chemicals for the betterment of human society, medicine and technology.

The future of mining will unlock scientific discoveries…

Mining the seabed for minerals is promising to become our imminent reality. The nascent industry of deep-sea mining is positioning itself as one solution to the problems we will need to face up to in the medium- to long-term. Namely, the paucity of many of the elements that will fuel the green tech revolution, like zinc, copper, cobalt, and manganese.

Some countries, like Japan, already run seabed excavation programmes within territorial waters. Expansion into international seas – what the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes as “the common heritage of mankind” – will unlock an enormous market for important resources, require a vast overhaul of multilateral agreements, and put at risk millions of square miles of aquatic habitats.

While the capacity to undertake such an enterprise only recently became commercially viable, thanks in large part to efforts by the offshore oil and gas industry, countries have spent the past decades parcelling up hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of international ocean seafloor.

The countries holding the rights to the largest pieces are China, whose 263 contracts give it exclusive access to over 160,000 square kilometres of seabed, and Britain, which has just two contracts, giving it rights to more than 133,000km2 of international waters. South Korea, Russia and Germany each own rights to between 87 and 88,000 square kilometres.

…But the environmental concerns must be addressed

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the regulatory body charged with issuing licences for exploration and exploitation of undersea zones to states, who often then use them to sponsor the activities of private entities. Its oversight responsibilities give it the power to deny licencing where there is evidence that deep-sea mining would endanger the network of sanctuary sites put in place to protect ecologically significant regions.

A recent Greenpeace report took aim at the ISA for failing to ever turn down a licence application, even where applicants wished to explore areas like the Lost City, a series of alkaline hydrothermal vents of prime scientific importance for investigating the origin of life on Earth near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The report, In Deep Water, argued that the support shown for excavation over conservation has been leveraged by the ISA to….

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