Ocean floor mining: What could possibly go wrong?

By Kurt Cobb, originally published by Resource Insights


A recent article on undersea mining in The Atlantic brought back a detailed childhood memory. When I was in fifth grade, my class put on a sort of mini science fair and performance art program for parents. My project focused on the prospect of mining the oceans. I drew a large mural-like color illustration showing a submarine stationed just above the seabed where it hoovered up minerals with large hoses.


The submarine had wide pipes running from it to the surface where a ship received the nodules of ore gathered by the hoses. During my presentation the classroom was dark, and my mural was illuminated using three small articulating lamps turned on and off by a classmate as I went through the distinct phases of the mining operations in a room meant to mimic the dark and foreboding deep.


It turns out these many years later that my cursory research into ocean mining as a fifth-grader yielded a roughly accurate portrayal of what is about to happen in the oceans starting early in the coming decade. The world’s nations may conclude a treaty governing undersea mining through the auspices of the United Nations as early as next year. Once that is concluded, large scale mining of ocean bottoms is expected to begin.


One method—already in use in coastal waters controlled by individual countries—will be to suck up nodules of ore lying on the seabed with huge vacuums and filter out the sediment that comes with it. This method will move quickly to the deep ocean once the treaty is approved resulting in huge, dense clouds of particles suspended underwater for possibly hundreds of miles from underwater mining sites. Scientists are worried that both the vacuuming and the plumes will destroy entire ecosystems about which we know little.

I am reminded of the hydraulic mining employed in California in the late 19th century to recover gold from the mountains there. What looks like natural erosion today in those mountains is quite often the result of high-pressure washing of mountainsides with water to unearth specks of gold hidden in the soil.


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