By Paul Voosen
Among metal-rich nodules of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a sea anemone–like cnidarian trails 2-meter tentacles. DIVA AMON AND CRAIG SMITH
Sometimes the sailors' myths aren't far off: The deep ocean really is filled with treasure and creatures most strange. For decades, one treasure—potato-size nodules rich in valuable
metals that sit on the dark abyssal floor—has lured big-thinking entrepreneurs, while defying their engineers. But that could change next month with the first deep-sea test of a bus-size machine designed to vacuum up these nodules.
The trial, run by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of the Belgian dredging giant DEME Group, will take place in the international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a nodule-rich area the width of the continental United States between Mexico and Hawaii. The Patania II collector, tethered to a ship more than 4 kilometers overhead, will attempt to suck up these nodules through four vacuums as it mows back and forth along a 400-meter-long strip.
Ecologists worried about the effect of the treasure hunt on the fragile deep-sea organisms living among and beyond the nodules should get some answers, too. An independent group of scientists on the German R/V Sonne will accompany GSR's vessel to monitor the effect of the Patania II's traverses. The European-funded effort, called MiningImpact2, will inform regulations under development for seafloor mining, says James Hein, a marine geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, California. "That work is critical."