Biodiversity | ~ 4 min read

Sinking to new depths?

Deep-sea mining is a way to extract mineral deposits from the deep seabed to be used as critical components in green solutions. But mining the deep seabed for strategic metals – like cobalt, lithium and nickel – has divided opinion due to the harmful effect on underwater life.

Opinions differ on the benefits of deep-sea mining activities versus the costs. Such mining involves the extraction of nodules comprised of manganese-oxide minerals. These nodules are a source of the metals critical to clean energy solutions and digital technologies. They present an alternative in the face of supply challenges on land – but at what cost?

Mining the seabed causes significant harm to marine ecosystems, which cannot be easily recovered or offset. Seabed nodules play a pivotal role for marine ecosystems, functioning as habitats where prey can avoid predators, and as a cornerstone to protecting marine biodiversity. Mining activity threatens these ecosystems by damaging the seabed, habitats and food chains.

Power of plankton

Advancements in satellite technology and measurement techniques have deepened scientists’ understanding of the reach of marine ecosystems. Damage to deep-sea biodiversity can ripple through to coastal ecosystems, with significant social impacts on food security and livelihoods derived from the sea. Innocuous organisms like phytoplankton have a massive climate impact. These microscopic underwater plants produce approximately 50% of the planet’s oxygen and absorb four times as much CO2 as the Amazon rainforest, according to the International Monetary Fund.1 They also provide important inputs for medical innovation.

Scientific approach

The harmful effects of mining the highly biodiverse sea floor contrast sharply with land-based mining. This is because of the complex interconnected role of marine ecosystems in preserving biodiversity, the more extensive reach of the harm, and the difficulties in reversing these impacts. The detrimental effects of mining seabeds would extend well beyond the immediate proximity of the harm, and fixing marine damage is financially very costly.

Do we really need to go to the bottom of the ocean for critical minerals? Given the risks and costs involved, strong governance with a robust scientific foundation is required if gentler deep-sea extraction methods are to be credibly pursued. Meanwhile, a circular economy approach that incorporates the re-use of waste minerals and metals is emerging as a potential alternative solution to the global problem of resource availability.

Read our blog post on demand for raw materials: Critical thinking on raw materials

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