From electric vehicles to renewable energy, the future runs on batteries. That’s driving soaring demand for raw materials used to make batteries, including nickel, cobalt, and copper. By next year, mining companies could start harvesting those materials from the deep sea at an industrial scale for the first time.
But the damage that would do to ethereal ecosystems on the seafloor could be catastrophic and irreversible, a new report warns. Ocean researchers and advocates are intensifying calls for a deep seabed mining moratorium before it’s too late.
Ocean researchers and advocates are intensifying calls for a deep seabed mining moratorium
Heated negotiations over a new “mining code” for the deep sea are underway this week in Kingston, Jamaica. “The mining code will ensure the further protection of the marine environment while setting out the requirements for the responsible access and use of the resources critical to the fight against climate change,” Rory Usher, PR and media manager for mining startup The Metals Company, says in an email to The Verge.
But the seafloor is still too much of a mystery for humans to fully understand the consequences of our actions there, advocates say. What little research we have already paints a bleak picture of what some of the ramifications might be. Deep seabed mining “should be avoided entirely” or at least delayed until there’s enough scientific evidence to inform regulation, the report concludes.
“You could say we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the deep seabed,” says Catherine Weller, global policy director of the conservation organization Fauna & Flora. “So it’s illogical to head down there and destroy it. The damage we do would be irreversible.”
The organization has some big-name backers, including vice presidents David Attenborough and Judi Dench. The group also counts Prince William as one of its patrons.
Fauna & Flora’s new report published today brings together peer-reviewed research on what lies in the depths of the ocean and how that could be affected by mining. There have been a lot of new discoveries since the group’s first assessment of that research in 2020, as scientists race mining companies to reach this mysterious realm.
A lot of attention is on an area between Hawaii and Mexico called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. The seafloor here is covered in rock-like polymetallic nodules rich in nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese. The zone is also rich in biodiversity that researchers are scrambling to understand. Up to 90 percent of species recently collected for study here are completely new to science. Some are so rare that they may only thrive within tight ranges less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) large, according to the report.
Polymetallic nodules on the seafloor. Image: NOAA
And they could soon face an existential threat. In 2021, the island nation of Nauru announced plans to sponsor The Metals Company’s mining efforts in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. It triggered a clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that requires the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to craft new regulations for mining the nodules by July. That’s on the agenda of an ISA council meeting taking place this week in Kingston.
Since it can take millions of years for polymetallic nodules to form, it could be impossible to quickly repair the ecosystems surrounding them if mining commences, the report authors argue. Noise pollution alone from mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone could be devastating for marine life even hundreds of miles away from the action, according to research published in the journal Science last year. Within close range, the noise could reach levels louder than a typical rock concert. Living in the darkness, some species depend on their ability to sense vibrations or noise to avoid predators or find mates and prey.
“They live in this cold, relatively quiet place where light doesn’t penetrate. And yet you’d be sending machines down there that would be noisy, creating light, churning up sediment. How is that going to impact the ability of the species to survive?” Weller says.
Beyond the disruption and noise from machinery exploiting the seafloor, researchers are also worried about what impact plumes of sediment might have as they spread. They could potentially smother other ecosystems or pollute the water above, according to the report. Marine sediment is also an important carbon sink, meaning it keeps some of the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. Disturbing that sediment risks releasing carbon dioxide, exacerbating climate change.
There’s so much more that scientists don’t know about the deep sea and how we might depend on it without even knowing it. Less than 1 percent of the deep ocean has even been explored. What we’ve found so far is pretty incredible, like the Mariana snailfish that has evolved to have holes in its skull to keep its head from imploding under the immense pressure of living some 8,000 meters (26,200 feet) under the sea.
Leaders from about a dozen countries, including France, Germany, and some small island nations like Fiji, Palau, and Samoa, are pushing for a pause on deep-sea mining. Even some tech and car companies have backed a moratorium, including Google, Samsung, BMW, and Volkswagen. The companies point to “responsible” mining on land as an alternative, an option that has historically also been fraught with environmental and human rights abuses. That just makes recycling batteries, making devices easier to repair, and using fewer materials in the first place all the more important.