Deep-sea mining could help meet mankind’s insatiable thirst for essential minerals and power the green economy of the future. It could also cause irreversible damage to a part of the planet that we know very little about
According to NASA and other industry experts, we know more about the Moon than the darkest recesses here on Earth. While 12 individuals have set foot on the lunar surface, only three have visited the deepest part of the ocean.
Satellites have mapped the Moon with a pixel scale of around 100m, but the seabed has only been catalogued to a far grainier resolution of 5km.
To take nothing away from man’s astronomical achievements, reaching the bottom of the sea still represents a significant technical challenge. Even if the deepest parts are avoided – including the Mariana Trench and its record depth of 10,994m – travelling to the seabed often means a shadowy descent lasting more than an hour and enduring pressure thousands of times stronger than that found at the Earth’s surface.
Aside from intellectual curiosity, there is one particular factor that is tempting businesses to make this arduous journey: deep-sea mining. At the bottom of the ocean resides a wealth of rare minerals that could be the key to powering the global economy of the future. It could also provide a lucrative revenue stream for any organisations that can reach them as quickly, cheaply and sustainably as possible.
Testing the water
The idea that the ocean floor might host a rich variety of valuable minerals was first considered in 1873, when the HMS Challenger recovered a number of manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. At the time, the process of dredging the seabed for these minerals was rudimentary and offered little economic value. However, it did spark a curiosity that persists today.
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