Norway is betting on deep-sea mining. Will the consequences be catastrophic?

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On Tuesday, January 9, Norway’s parliament voted to authorize mineral exploration from the Arctic seabed. This opens up the possibility of mining operations in an area of 281.2 thousand. km2 of the Norwegian continental shelf, all the way to Svalbard. Norway intends to become the first country to produce deep-sea oil on a commercial scale and reduce its dependence on exported gas and oil. However, it is not known exactly when the work would begin. Deep-sea mining is a controversial topic. Will mining tractors languish at the bottom of the seas?

What deep-sea mining is all about

Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) is an industry that aims to extract mineral deposits from theseabed. They are particularly valuable because they contain: manganese, copper, cobalt, zinc and rare earth metals. It is estimated that there are billions of tons of polymetallic nodules under the water, in the form of round nodules the size of a potato. There is much to strive for, but so far the industry exists only in theory, as deep-sea mining is not yet taking place on a commercial scale anywhere. Meanwhile, technologies are being developed to prepare for such an eventuality.

So far, the proposed methods of seabed mining involve placing a mining vehicle on the seabed. It is usually a very large machine (resembling a three-story tractor) that vacuums the top layer of its surface when it reaches the bottom. It sucks up and sends sediment, rocks, crushed animals and sedimentary nodules to a ship waiting on the surface. There, the minerals are sorted, and the remaining slurry, consisting of sludge, water and processing agents, is returned to the ocean via a discharge plume.

Deep-sea mining the answer to the climate crisis?

Valuable minerals found at the bottom of the seas are planned to be used to produce electronic devices and green energy technologies. The International Energy Agency predicts that in order to meet climate goals, it will be necessary by 2040. To mine 80 million t of nickel. We use it, for example, in electric car batteries. So much so that onshore reserves of the mineral are estimated at approx. 100 million t. At this rate, supplies will quickly run out.

Organizations that support deep-sea mining say it is essential if we are to move away from fossil fuels. Why? Because at the current rate of growth in production and consumption, we need more and more energy. At the same time, we are fighting climate change, which requires a shift to green energy sources. These, in turn, are available to us through technologies based on rare minerals. Therefore, deep-sea mining appears as an opportunity to continue economic development in parallel with the energy transition. Proponents also argue that extracting minerals from the seabed is better for the environment than opening more mines on land.

How will deep-sea mining affect the marine ecosystem?

However, there are many opponents to the exploitation of underwater resources. First of all, they are a reminder that we have not yet learned all the determinants of marine ecosystems. This causes us to operate in the dark, so to speak, destroying the precious environment along the way. In addition, the lack of regulation in this area makes the risk of an environmental disaster very high.

Studies conducted so far show that any seabed intervention with heavy equipment leaves damage that will only disappear after many years. At the site of the underwater work is about 30 percent. fewer microorganisms, and fewer worms and syringes. The noise the machines generate will disturb marine animals by interfering with their acoustic signals. On the other hand, sediment-clouded water will make it difficult for squid and jellyfish, which send bioluminescent signals to each other, to communicate. Once the sediments sink back to the bottom, they can smother the benthic species (borers, sponges, mollusks, crustaceans) that live there.

Norway subjected to international criticism

After Tuesday’s decision by the Norwegian parliament, the world media was flooded with a wave of outrage. Norway, which tries to pass itself off as a country that cares about the environment, is making a decision that could harm priceless ecosystems. WWF and Greenpeace activists describe it as catastrophic. More than 800 scientists have signed an open letter supporting a halt to deep-sea mining, warning of “irreversible” environmental damage.

According to Martin Webeler of the Environmental Justice Foundation, the demand for valuable minerals can largely be met by more efficient use of deposits already being exploited. This means recycling electronic waste such as old phones, creating more advanced batteries and extending the life of products.

Why would we expand destructive mining into one of Earth’s most pristine and important ecosystems, almost certainly destroying undiscovered species and with unknown consequences across a vast stretch of ocean, when we are already sitting on a gold mine?