A New Frontier: Deep sea ventures could guarantee the future of mining
Deep sea mining is no longer a matter of science fiction. In the 1960’s the idea of turning to the ocean for minerals was born, and since then people and companies have been engrossed in advancing their technologies to meet the task. Now, Nautilus Minerals is slated to pioneer the deep mining venture.
As land-based mining operations progress, minerals are becoming harder to find.
Mines are having to be dug deeper into the earth, increasing costs just to find enough minerals to meet demand. On the other hand, the surface of the deep ocean floor is scattered with polymetallic nodules. These nodules are found around 6,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, and comprise of metals collected on fossils or other artifacts. When the idea was conceived, it was estimated that the nodules are in a near-limitless supply, just waiting to be plucked like so many metallurgic flowers.
However, nodules are not the only strategy.
Despite being plentiful, polymetallic nodules take centuries to develop. Companies are looking to hydrothermal vents for their deep-sea operations. Hydrothermal vents were discovered in the 70’s while scientists were exploring an oceanic ridge near the Galapagos Islands (the same islands that are home to “Darwin’s finches”). The vents are created when seawater seeps below the earth’s crust in areas with shifting tectonic plates. The water is then superheated by magma and vented, laden with magma particles, back up into the ocean. Once the carried particles hit the frigid waters of the deep they solidify, creating chimneys around the vents. This is where the mining sector steps in.
Mining the depths.
The International Seabed Authority recently granted Nautilus Minerals the first deep sea mining contract. The contract allows the Canadian-based mining company to excavate metallurgic deposits off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Besides the enormous supply of hydrothermal vents in the area alone, many other factors ended in the decision to mine the features.
One attractive attribute is that the metals around the hydrothermal vents are present in higher concentrations than metals found on land. While the reason why may be unclear, the concentrations would mean that less area would have to be excavated to meet demand. Perhaps more impressive is the vents ability to replenish whatever is taken. As long as the water flow below the crust is not blocked, the chimneys would be remade in time. Some have compared mining hydrothermal vents to cutting grass.
Of course, Nautilus Minerals is planning to take steps to avoid unnecessary damaging of the surrounding environment. Setting aside networks of protected areas is vital for protecting the delicate underwater habitats, as well as moving some of the vents inhabitants to safe areas and planting crates as alternative havens. Minimizing impacts is extremely important, especially in such pristine ecosystems.
Expected to start as early as 2018, the results of this pioneer mission will show as a reference for the future of deep sea mining.
Source:NOAA photo library
The formation process of polymetallic nodules and hydrothermal vents