The Race Is On to Mine the Deep Sea—But Scientists Are Wary – by Jon Letman (National Geographic – August 29, 2018)

Some of the biggest deposits of iron, copper, and rare-earth elements are in the middle of the Pacific. They come at a cost.

Closer than the moon, yet less well-mapped than Mars, the Earth’s seafloor is home to otherworldly creatures befitting a science fiction movie. Their remote habitat has caught the attention of humans, who are lining up to begin mining the bottom of the deep blue sea.

As technology and infrastructure drive the demand for minerals, and terrestrial resources grow harder to mine, the materials in the deep ocean are starting to look increasingly attractive to countries and companies.

“Deep-sea mining could end up having the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet in terms of area of impact,” says University of Hawaii oceanographer Craig Smith.

It’s already underway: pioneer excavations in Papua New Guinea and Japan have taken advantage of advances in remotely operated vehicles, robotics, and communications technology to pioneer excavations. And companies like Lockheed Martin subsidiary UK Seabed Resources are eager to embark on a new deep-sea bonanza.

Over one million square miles of abyssal plain 12,000 to 18,000 feet deep is peppered with polymetallic nodules—vast fields of lumpy, black, potato-shaped mineral deposits.

Nodules range in size from a pea to a soccer ball and are rich in manganese, iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare-earth elements, though they can take millions of years to grow a few millimeters.

The idea of mining these nodules, in part, led to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. It also resulted in the establishment of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which oversees exploration claims in international waters.

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