August 9, 2012 1:10 pm
Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining company, received a first-of-its-kind 20-year license to mine 1600 meters below the ocean waves in the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, reports the Guardian. The venture is the first big step into the nascent field of deep sea mining. Though the license was granted last year, the project has been held up by disputes with the Papua New Guinean government.
Down at the bottom of the ocean, where the sea floor is pulling itself apart in the process of forming new planetary crust, hydrothermal vents pump scalding, mineral-rich water up from cracks in the seabed. These deep sea vents are home to vast stores of precious and valuable metals, namely copper, lead, zinc, gold, and silver. The ore deposits, known as massive sulfide deposits, also house rare earth elements such as indium, gallium and germanian, which are highly sought after by technology manufacturers. “Over thousands of years,” says Andrew Thaler, “an active vent field can build up a huge mound of metal and mineral rich ore – a massive sulfide mound.”
The mining process will involve levelling underwater hydrothermal “chimneys”, which spew out vast amounts of minerals. Sediment is then piped to a waiting vessel, which will separate the ore from the water before pumping the remaining liquid back to the seafloor.
Scientists have only known of the existence of these systems since the 1970s, but continued research has unveiled that they house a vast array of unique life, such as giant bright red tubeworms, ghostly crabs, lobsters, fish, octopuses and hardy bacteria that use the chemicals from the vent water as fuel.
The Deep Sea Mining campaign, a group opposed to the idea of deep sea mining, thinks that “underwater mining will decimate deep water organisms yet to be discovered by science, while sediment plumes could expose marine life to toxic metals that will work their way up the food chain to tuna, dolphins and even humans.”
In the rock-tastic video above, Sven Petersen of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel says that to limit damage to their mining equipment from the extremely hot and caustic vent waters, mining companies will likely focus on mining old inactive vents. The upshot of this, says Petersen, is that the curious and unique lifeforms that live near hydrothermal vents are less likely to be affected by the mining.
That being said, the track record of humans poking around in the deep sea for commercial gain is hardly spotless.
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