Norway could become the first country in the world to mine the deep sea, but many scientists and environmentalists fear that this might blow open the door for a new frontier of extraction, with companies and governments from the Arctic to the Pacific in a race to reap the riches of the ocean floor.
The Norwegian parliament will soon decide whether to open up a section of the Arctic Sea to deep-sea mining, starting with exploration.
But why mine the deep sea? Access to minerals like cobalt is critical for the green transition because they’re used to make things like batteries for electric vehicles and solar panels.
Some people think mining different parts of the deep sea—all the way down to 21,000 feet below—holds a solution and profits. Hydrothermal vents spew out magma-heated water, leaving mineral deposits.
Seamounts are sometimes covered with a cobalt-rich crust, which would have to be dug up.
Finally, there are the abyssal plains, which cover half of the planet and are scattered with polymetallic nodules—ancient rocks made of minerals.
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Any type of mining would generate pollution from light, noise, and wastewater, as well as create plumes of sediment. Scientists warn that we still don’t know enough to “make evidence-based decision-making” regarding environmental management, including whether to proceed with mining. They say that most of the deep ocean is “poorly characterized or understood” or “still completely unexplored" and that “the consequences of the impacts of commercial mining remain unknown."
They fear that mining the deep sea could cause “significant damage to near-pristine and important ecosystems on enormous scales,” which could potentially lead to the extinction of rare, endemic, or unknown species.
There could also be impacts on ecosystem services like fisheries, climate regulation, and carbon storage. Environmentalists say we could also reduce the demand for minerals by improving battery technologies and recycling minerals from old electronics.
More than 20 countries have come out in support of a moratorium or outright ban on deep-sea mining. And dozens of companies, like Microsoft, Google, and BMW, have promised they won’t use deep-sea minerals until it’s clear that the environment can be effectively protected. Nevertheless, the International Seabed Authority has issued exploration licenses in international waters, though it’s still deciding whether to go ahead with actual mining.
And in the meantime, countries like Norway are paving the way in their own sovereign waters.
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