Abyss – a planet above the abyss (2)

Otchłań: planeta nad przepaścią

“Chemosynthesis on geothermal vents is a breakthrough in terms of how we think about life, not just on Earth, but elsewhere.” – Helen Scales, 2022, “The abyss, the hidden life of the oceans…”

Heat and cold – hydrothermal chimneys

In the early 1990s. Michael Russel of JPL/NASA has pointed to hydrothermal vents as sites for the origin of cellular life on Earth [1]. Astrobiologists were already looking toward the chimneys imagined in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus. In 2017. In fragments of primordial oceanic crust in northern Canada, microscopic tubes and fibers of hematite have been discovered, having the same shape as the microorganisms now living on hydrothermal vents. These rocks have been expended for at least 3.77 billion years and are the oldest known fossils with remnants of living cells (some date them at 4.28 billion years). In 2019. At University College London, emerging protocells have been observed in hydrothermal reactors.

Hydrothermal vents (hydrothermal vents) are formed by the precipitation of minerals from water heated by volcanic magma when it comes into contact with the cool water of the ocean depths. It is enriched in minerals by seeping through the rocks beforehand. Heated by the fire of the planet’s hot core, the water can have a temperature of more than 400 degrees Celsius (so-called black chimneys, white ones have a temperature of only a few tens of degrees). However, the enormous pressure at a depth of several thousand meters prevents it from turning into steam. Depending on the floating minerals, the water flowing out of the chimneys resembles white or black smoke. They grow mainly along oceanic ridges.

Oceanic life generators need not be extremely hot. In 1983. from the deck of the bathyscaph Alvin in the Gulf of Mexico (at a depth of 3,200 meters), an ecosystem based on the chemosynthesis of methane and hydrogen sulfide seeping through the seafloor was discovered. This is the so-called cold seep, and we know of thousands of others since, located along cracks in the seafloor above oil, gas or brine deposits.

Convention on the Law of the Sea

“The depths of the oceans are the last vast, unconquered space that we can subdue and exploit. If we chose to do so, we would be part of the age-old sequence of plundering our planet’s resources. Whether it’s gold mines, oil wells, the mass slaughter of buffalo on the Great Plains of North America, or trawlers destroying ancient undersea mountain systems, we always do the same thing…” – Helen Scales, 2022, “The Abyss, the hidden life of the oceans…”

The ocean floor of international waters is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS). According to the treaty, the bottom and its resources are the common heritage of mankind, and this applies to all countries, whether they have ratified the convention or not. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was scheduled to begin in July 2023. issue permits for exploitation from the ocean floor of polymetallic concretions. However, it has delayed the issuance of the first decision until 2024, when the response period for the application in favor of mining consortium The Metals Co. expires anyway. submitted by the island state of Nauru.

Gerard Barron, chairman of The Metals Co. has been promoting the thesis for years that open-pit mining of metals from the ocean floor will have less environmental impact than onshore mines. The problem is that we are still unable to assess this impact, and accumulated data suggests that it will be an irreversible destruction for the ecosystem of the bottom and ocean depths. In addition to the devastation of the bottom, the destruction of underwater mountains and hydrothermal vents is also at stake. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the northeast Pacific, between Hawaii and Kiribati and Mexico, is currently the main focus of the mining corporations.

Mining’s El Dorado?

“Everything indicates that it is impossible to exploit ocean resources in a sustainable way. The extractive industry will lead to the destruction of biodiverse undersea ecosystems and any medicinal riches they contain.” – Helen Scales, 2022, “The Abyss, the hidden life of the oceans…” [2]

The assumption was that before mining the ocean floor, a scientific reconnaissance of the ecosystem should be carried out and the impact of deep-sea mining on the environment should be determined. In June 2023. A group of scientists led by Adrian Glover of the British Natural History Museum published in Current Biology [3] the status of the Clarrion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) life inventory. As of 2016. 5578 species unknown to science have been recorded there, of which barely 436 have been able to be described so far. Scientists estimate that the biodiversity of the CCZ reaches at least 6,000-8,000. Species, of which 88-92 percent. may not occur anywhere else.

The Clarion-Clipperton zone is approximately 6 million square kilometers and extends between the Clarion and Clipperton faults from 5° to 20° north latitude and between 115° and 160° west longitude. It is an area not much smaller than Australia. At the bottom lie polymetallic concretions that have formed over millions of years. They are rich in manganese, copper, nickel sulfides and cobalt sulfides, essential for electric cars and our tablets and smartphones.

So far, the ISA has issued 31 licenses for scientific exploration of the deep sea. They were received by: Poland, China, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, India, Brazil, Japan, Jamaica, and Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga (the latter three promote The Metals Co.). Against extracting metals from the ocean floor for now are: Ireland, Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Palau, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Federation of Micronesian States. Norway, Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga are to be mined. Giants like Samsung and Google or Volvo and BMW have vowed that they do not want to use minerals extracted in this way, however geopolitics and the growing problem of access to rare earth elements, may change this perspective.

Wherein lies the problem of ocean mining?

“Even if we found unicorns living at the bottom of the ocean, I don’t think it would stop mining.” – Daniel Jones, UK National Oceanography Center [4]. Life was born in the ocean and still draws from the ocean. Barely a few years ago, a lady perorated on social media that she would not go back to the Middle Ages and give up plastic. It was about the usual tubes in drinks, but the problem is much broader. Today, microplastics are everywhere, even in Antarctic streams [5]. It affects the zooplankton that are hovering at the base of the great food ladder of life [6]. It is no longer a secret that sea salt contains sizable amounts of microplastics [7].

As of 2018, when the first study in this direction was done, about 400 million tons of plastic had already landed in the Earth’s oceans. Microplastics cause tissue damage, dwarfism, disease and even fish death [8]. However, the worst part is that it lands in our food chain. The average adult thus consumes several thousand microplastic particles per year. Do we already know and have we come to terms with the impact this process has on our health and lives?

Marine mining will be no different. Sediments floating in the water will clog the filter apparatuses of organisms such as sponges, bryozoans and clams, killing them. The tailings will go into tuna sandwiches and salads. Few will see with their own eyes the effects of deep-sea mining, but what about the contaminants that end up in people’s digestive systems? Will we ignore them, just like the microplastics in fish meat, sea salt and water bottles?

Mines in the deep will destroy entire species along with their habitats, because life will not be able to return to the depleted areas. Deep-sea mining could exacerbate the climate crisis by reversing the pump effect and diverting coal trapped in the depths toward the surface, or 25 times more dangerous for that matter, methane from destroyed hydrothermal vents, which, like polymetallic concretions, are seen as sources of raw material. Scientists have warned that the loss of biodiversity of the ocean floor will be certain and irreversible on a human time scale. All indications are that, as in James Cameron’s “Avatar” movie, we will destroy this world before we know it. Unlike the film, however, the ocean depths are our world, not an alien planet.

The Lost City

The Lost City, mentioned in the introduction, is a place unique to the planet. It was discovered in 2000. And named in honor of Atlantis. White carbonate chimneys grow here, which have a delicate and complex structure. The tallest is 60 meters high and as much as 30 meters in diameter. It is Earth’s oldest known hydrothermal field, operating continuously for 30,000 years. years. The site is located south of the Azores and west of the axis of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, at a depth of 750-850 meters.

The geochemical and microbial processes occurring here are still under study, but it is known that the serpentinization phenomenon mentioned in “Extraterrestrial Oceans” occurs here, and 58 percent of the The macrofauna recognized so far are endemics. The stacks ooze a strongly alkaline fluid at 40-75°C, poor in metals but very rich in hydrogen and methane [9]. The stacks, named IMAX, Poseidon, Seeps and Nature, support an extremely diverse biomass of species. A real biological-chemical-geological show is playing out here, and this is the place where life on Earth could have originated billions of years ago. The Lost City is a unique biotope, one of the most important, most precious sites in the depths of the Ocean.

Polish accent

The plot of land that Poland owns in the Clarion-Clipperton Pacific zone is not our only oceanic resource. In 2017. The ISA has awarded the government of the Republic of Poland a 15-year contract for exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge area. There are two hydrothermal chimney sites in the Polish plot: Broken Spur and… Lost City. Both feature different food chain networks, with the modeled one, that of the Lost City, seeming to be twice as efficient.

Both are also characterized by a high percentage of endemism. The contracts obligate contractors to conduct environmental studies and develop monitoring programs, but beyond the residual data on the Lost City [10] and Broken Spur [11] The area is mostly unexplored. The Lost City has no mineral resources of interest from a deep-sea mining perspective. The main threat to the Lost City ecosystem is the impact of tailings associated with deep-sea mining of polymetallic nodules, should it be carried out at neighboring sites [12].


According to Scales, 30,000 are coming from the ocean. bioactive substances, including halichondrin B, from which a drug used to treat breast cancer is produced (extracted from sponges), substances that fight the malaria-causing sickle spore (extracted from sponges), inhibiting the proliferation of drug-resistant ovarian cancer cell lines (sourced from lily pads), fighting leukemia (sourced from tunicates), or a substance that disables a key HIV enzyme (sourced from fungi living in silt in the South China Sea). Bacteria found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench have the ability to fight cancer cells, as do compounds discovered in clams from the hydrothermal vents of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. What knowledge, vital to the survival of humanity, will escape us irretrievably if we destroy the Lost City?

Helen Scales calls for writing a noble page in human history, for a change. It calls for the undersea kingdom to be placed under a total ban on deep-sea fishing and resource extraction from the top of the twilight zone to the abyss of the ocean trenches, along the lines of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. This would allow scientists to continue studying unique ecosystems, looking for bioactive molecules and inspiration for new drugs. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t work that way on this planet after all… The author calls for the abandonment of private cars and a reduction in the number of flights, for pressure on governments to implement the changes no later than this decade. So, will we give up our cars and vacation trips to watch our leaders use dozens of small jets to meet in Davos in the age of the Internet and talk about it?

Demanding a global transition from combustion cars to electric cars at the expense of car owners in the current situation has a fundamental flaw – in addition to the immaturity of the infrastructure and the uncertainty of the technology – polymetallic concretions from the ocean floor, both from the Clarion-Clipperton zone and from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and probably many other as yet undiscovered places, will be required to build so many batteries. Closing coal-fired power plants in Europe only to draw electricity from newly built coal-fired units in China will at best only balance the planet’s environmentally and climate damaging gas emissions [13]. So is there hope for further human development without destroying the Earth, which will lead us to self-destruction?

The answer may lie in the stars, or more specifically, in nearby asteroids. Coincidentally, before Peter Hand’s “Extraterrestrial Oceans” and Helen Scales’ “The Abyss,” my reading was “Asteroids: How Love, Fear and Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space,” by Martin Elvis and Robert Zubrin’s Space Time . The opportunities and challenges presented there become the answer to the problems posed by Scales. Humanity should seriously turn its eyes to the stars…. [14].

In the article, I used, among other things. From the works:

[1] According to this theory, life on Earth began 4.2 billion years ago, thanks to redox reactions at the boundary between the strongly alkaline 150°C water gushing from hydrothermal vents and the acidic 90°C water of the Hadean ocean; M.J. Russel and A.J. Hall (1997) The emergence of life from iron monosulphide bubbles at a submarine hydrothermalredox and pH front. “Journal of the Geological Society” 154:377-402.

[2] Helen Scales (2022) The Abyss: The hidden life of the oceans and the danger that threatens it, Copernicus Center Press

[3] Muriel Rabone et al. (2023) How many metazoan species live in the world’s largest mineral exploration region?, “Current Biology” 33:2383-2396 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2023.04.052

[4] Helen Scales (2022) The Abyss: The hidden life of the oceans…

[5] Microplastics in a stream on Livingstone Island; Miguel González-Pleiter et al. (2020) First detection of microplastics in the freshwater of an Antarctic Specially Protected Area. “Marine Pollution Bulletin” 161: 111811 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111811.

[6] Zara L.R. Botterell et al. (2019) Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: A review*. “Environmental Pollution” 245:98-110 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2018.10.065.

[7] Microplastic distribution in sea salt: Kim Ji-Su et al. (2018) Global Pattern of Microplastics (MPs) in Commercial Food-Grade Salts: Sea Salt as an Indicator of Seawater MP Pollution, “Environmental Science and Technology” 52(21):12819-12828 https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b04180

[8] Anja Rebelein et al. (2021) Microplastic fibers – Underestimated threat to aquatic organisms?, “Science of The Total Environment” 777, 146045, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.146045.

[9] Gretchen L. Früh-Green et al. (2003) 30,000 Years of Hydrothermal Activity at the Lost CityVent Field, “Science” 301:495-498 https://10.1126/science.1085582.

[10] Teresa Radziejewska et al. (2022) Benthic biology in the Polish exploration contract area of the Mid- Atlantic Ridge: the knowns and the unknowns. A review. “Frontiers in Marine Science” 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.898828.

[11] The Broken Spur hydrothermal field was discovered in 1993. On the slope of a volcanic trench in the northern part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, south of the Azores. There are more than a dozen black-smoking chimneys here, ranging in height from a few meters to several tens of meters. The site is important as a hybridization zone for two species of deep-sea bivalves(Bathymodiolus azoricus and B. puteoserpentis), from the northern and southern parts of the Ridge. There are many deep-sea creatures living here that do not have Polish names: Mariana Cruz et al. (2022) Reproductive Traits of the Vent Crab Segonzacia mesatlantica (Guinot, 1989) From the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. “Frontiers in Marine Science” 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.900990.

[12] David E. Johnson (2019) Protecting the lost city hydrothermal vent system: All is not lost, or is it? “Marine Policy” 107,103593 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103593.

[13] (PAP 2023) China: coal-fired power plants. In realization, the number of gigawatts, enough to supply the whole of Germany with energy, https://www.pap.pl/aktualnosci/chiny-elektrownie-weglowe-w-realizacji-liczba-gigawatow-wystarczajaca-do-zaopatrzenia-w

[14] NASA plans in 2025. manned mission to asteroid 1999 AO10 from the Near Earth Object (NEO) group. So far, samples from three asteroids have already returned to Earth: 25143 Itokawa (Japanese Hayabusa 1 mission in 2010), 162173 Ryugu (Hayabusa 2 in 2020) and 101955 Bennu (NASA OSIRIS-REx in 2023).