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Deep sea mining is a relatively new mineral retrieval process that takes place on the ocean floor. Ocean mining sites are usually around large areas of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents at about 1,400 - 3,700 m below the ocean’s surface. The vents create sulfide deposits, which contain precious metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc. The deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems that take ore to the surface to be processed. As with all mining operations, deep sea mining raises questions about environmental damage to the surrounding areas.
In the mid 1960s the prospect of deep-sea mining was brought up by the publication of J. L. Mero's Mineral Resources of the Sea. The book claimed that nearly limitless supplies of cobalt, nickel and other metals could be found throughout the planet's oceans. Mero stated that these metals occurred in deposits of manganese nodules, which appear as lumps of compressed sediment on the sea floor at depths of about 5,000 m. Some nations including France, Germany and the United States sent out research vessels in search of nodule deposits. Initial estimates of deep sea mining viability turned out to be much exaggerated. This overestimate, coupled with depressed metal prices, led to the near abandonment of nodule mining by 1982. From the 1960s to 1984 an estimated US $650 million had been spent on the venture, with little to no return.
Over the past decade a new phase of deep-sea mining has begun. Rising demand for precious metals in Japan, China, Korea and India has pushed these countries in search of new sources. Interest has recently shifted toward hydrothermal vents as the source of metals instead of scattered nodules. The trend of transition towards an electricity based information and transportation infrastructure currently seen in western societies further pushes demands for precious metals. The current revived interest in phosphorus nodule mining at the seafloor stems from phosphor-based artificial fertilizers being of significant importance for world food production. Growing world population pushes the need for artificial fertilizers or greater incorporation of organic systems within agricultural infrastructure.
Currently, the best potential deep sea site, the Solwara 1 Project, has been found in the waters off Papua New Guinea, a high grade copper-gold resource and the world's first Seafloor Massive Sulphide (SMS) resource. The Solwara 1 Project is located at 1600 metres water depth in the Bismarck Sea, New Ireland Province. Using the latest ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicles) technology, Nautilus Minerals Inc. will be the first company of its kind to begin full-scale undersea excavation of mineral deposits. First production is expected in early 2013.
The most noteworthy regulations on deep sea mining came through the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea from 1973 to 1982, which finally came into force in 1994. The convention set up the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates nations’ deep sea mining ventures outside each nations’ Exclusive Economic Zone (a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) area surrounding coastal nations). The ISA requires nations interested in mining to explore two equal mining sites and turn one over to the ISA, along with a transfer of mining technology over a 10 to 20 year period. This seemed reasonable at the time because it was widely believed that nodule mining would be extremely profitable. However, these strict requirements led some industrialized countries to refuse to sign the initial treaty in 1982.
The deep sea contains many different resources available for extraction, including silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc. These raw materials are found in various forms on the sea floor, usually in higher concentrations than terrestrial mines.
Minerals and related depths
|Type of mineral deposit||Average Depth||Resources found|
|Polymetallic nodules||4,000 - 6,000 m||Nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese|
|Manganese Crusts||800 - 2,400 m||Mainly cobalt, some vanadium, molybdenum and platinum|
|Sulfide deposits||1,400 - 3,700 m||Copper, lead and zinc some gold and silver|
Diamonds are also mined from the seabed by De Beers and others. Nautilus Minerals Inc and Neptune Minerals are planning to mine the offshore waters of Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Recent technological advancements have given rise to the use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to collect mineral samples from prospective mine sites. Using drills and other cutting tools, the ROVs obtain samples to be analyzed for precious materials. Once a site has been located, a mining ship or station is set up to mine the area.
There are two predominant forms of mineral extraction being considered for full scale operations: continuous-line bucket system (CLB) and the hydraulic suction system. The CLB system is the preferred method of nodule collection. It operates much like a conveyor-belt, running from the sea floor to the surface of the ocean where a ship or mining platform extracts the desired minerals, and returns the tailings to the ocean. Hydraulic suction mining lowers a pipe to the seafloor which transfers nodules up to the mining ship. Another pipe from the ship to the seafloor returns the tailings to the area of the mining site.
In recent years, the most promising mining areas have been the Central and Eastern Manus Basin around Papua New Guinea and the crater of Conical Seamount to the east. These locations have shown promising amounts of gold in the area's sulfide deposits (an average of 26 parts per million). The relatively shallow water depth of 1050 m, along with the close proximity of a gold processing plant makes for an excellent mining site.
Because deep sea mining is a relatively new field, the complete consequences of full scale mining operations are unknown. However, experts are certain that removal of parts of the sea floor will result in disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity of the water column and sediment plumes from tailings. Removing parts of the sea floor disturbs the habitat of benthic organisms, possibly, depending on the type of mining and location, causing permanent disturbances. Aside from direct impact of mining the area, leakage, spills and corrosion would alter the mining area’s chemical makeup.
Among the impacts of deep sea mining, sediment plumes could have the greatest impact. Plumes are caused when the tailings from mining (usually fine particles) are dumped back into the ocean, creating a cloud of particles floating in the water. Two types of plumes occur: near bottom plumes and surface plumes. Near bottom plumes occur when the tailings are pumped back down to the mining site. The floating particles increase the turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water, clogging filter-feeding apparatuses used by benthic organisms. Surface plumes cause a more serious problem. Depending on the size of the particles and water currents the plumes could spread over vast areas. The plumes could impact zooplankton and light penetration, in turn affecting the food web of the area.