As deep as 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) under water and 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from Tokyo, work has begun on the new hunting ground for metals in Japan, a country so devoid of natural resources that most of what it needs has to be imported.
As the island nation depleted most of its land-based minerals in the economic boom that followed World War II, scientists have identified swathes of the sea floor littered with nuggets containing everything from copper to gold left over from the volcanic activity that created the archipelago millions of years ago. The trick is extracting them at a profit, something a government consortium will start testing next year.
Ocean mining isn’t new — Japan began exploring in the 1970s. But new technologies make it easier for companies like Canada’s Nautilus Minerals Inc. to collect mineral-rich rock from the sea. With more than 50 million metric tons of ore estimated in Japanese waters, the government wants to revive home-grown supply and ease dependence on imports. When Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympic Games, bullion for gold medals may come from the deep ocean.
“Disruption of metal supplies may occur in the near future,” said Tetsuro Urabe, a geologist who is director of the government’s Next-Generation Technology for Ocean Resources Exploration Program. “We don’t want to be in a panic when we are confronted with a copper crisis. Unless we develop various kinds of new technology in advance, we won’t be ready for launch when needed.”
It’s not surprising that mineral resources sit untouched in deep waters around Japan. The country is nestled in the Pacific Basin along a line of volcanoes and fault lines known as the “Ring of Fire,” a region prone to earthquakes and eruptions. When that volcanic activity occurs in the sea, magma pushes up from the Earth’s crust.
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