Having grown up in Central Texas, I never gave much thought to the ocean. So I was surprised to learn that valuable ores can be mined from the seabeds of the world. The International Seabed Authority is headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, in a building that looks like a cross between a prison and a Holiday Inn. The I.S.A. has jurisdiction over roughly half the globe.
Under international law, countries control the waters within two hundred miles of their shores. Beyond that, the oceans and all they contain are considered “the common heritage of mankind.” This realm, which encompasses nearly a hundred million square miles of seafloor, has great riches scattered across it. Mostly, these take the shape of lumps that resemble blackened potatoes.
The lumps, known formally as polymetallic nodules, consist of layers of ore that have built up around bits of marine debris, such as ancient shark teeth. The process by which the metals accumulate is not entirely understood; however, it’s thought to be exceedingly slow. A single, spud-sized nugget might take some three million years to form.
It has been estimated that, collectively, the nodules on the bottom of the ocean contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land. They contain six thousand times as much tellurium, a metal that’s extremely rare but in great demand.
The first attempts to harvest this submerged wealth were undertaken nearly fifty years ago. In the summer of 1974, a drillship purportedly belonging to Howard Hughes—the Hughes Glomar Explorer—anchored north of Midway Atoll, attempting to collect nodules from the seabed west of Baja California. The president of the company likened the exercise to “standing on the top of the Empire State Building, trying to pick up small stones on the sidewalk using a long straw, at night.”
After the Glomar expeditions failed, interest in seabed mining waned. It’s now waxing again. As one recent report put it, “The Pacific Ocean is the scene of a new wild west.” Thirty companies have received permits from the I.S.A. to explore. Most are looking to slurp up the nodules; others are hoping to excavate stretches of the ocean floor that are rich in cobalt and copper. Permits to begin commercial mining could be issued within a few years.
Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that the sooner it starts the better. Manufacturing wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar panels, and batteries for energy storage requires scarce resources. Tellurium, for example, is a key component in one type of solar panels. But seabed mining poses environmental hazards of its own.
The more scientists learn about the depths, the more extraordinary the discoveries. The ocean floor is populated by creatures that thrive under extreme conditions. There is, for example, a ghostly pale deep-sea octopus that lays its eggs only on the stalks of nodule-dwelling sponges. Remove the nodules in order to melt them down and it will, presumably, take millions of years for new ones to form.
Since it’s very hard for humans to get to the deep sea—and, once there, to record what they’re seeing—scientists are afraid that the bottom of the ocean will be wrecked before many of the marvelous creatures living there are even identified. The depths are particularly ill-suited to disturbance because, owing to a scarcity of food, creatures tend to grow and reproduce extremely slowly.
The I.S.A., for its part, has been assigned the task not just of issuing the permits for seabed mining but also of drafting the regulations to govern the practice. These regulations have yet to be finalized, so it’s unclear how stringent they will be. Many marine scientists argue that because deep-sea ecosystems are so fragile—and operations that are miles below the surface so difficult to monitor—the only safe way to proceed is not to. One compromise proposal is that if mining does go forward, artificial nodules could be manufactured and dropped by ship into the deep ocean, to replace those being refashioned into batteries.
Jerry Lincecum is starting a new class for older adults who want to write their life stories in Sherman on July 28. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: email@example.com.