Saturday October 14, 2017
Japan just mined the ocean floor and people want answers
more stories from this episode
- Could zapping your brain with electricity make you smarter?
- Genetics is a big reason divorce runs in families
- Japan just mined the ocean floor and people want answers
- Trump is losing the 'war on coal' to the free market
- How Zika mutated and became a terrifying plague
- Can large underwater volcanoes increase ocean temperatures? Quirks Question
- Full Episode
Japan's deep sea mining test
Japan just became the first country in the world to mine its seabed. The ocean floor is rich with resources that are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain on land, such as zinc, cobalt, copper, etc. Deep sea mining advocates think this could be the next gold rush.
In its test, Japan says they successfully crushed and then brought the ore to the surface. They conducted this test within their own territorial waters, otherwise known as their Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. And while the International Sea Bed Authority will eventually regulate deep sea mining in international waters, those rules aren't in effect yet.
Why deep sea scientists are concerned
Many scientitsts believe that biodiversity loss among life at the bottom of the ocean will be unavoidable from deep sea mining. That was the conclusion of a paper published this summer in the journal Nature Geoscience, which was co-authored by Dr. Cindy Van Dover from Duke University and Dr. Craig Smith from the University of Hawaii.
The material Japan mined in their pilot test came from an inactive hydrothermal vent, which according to Dr. Tatsuo Nozaki from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) is "several hundred metres away" from an active chimney. These extremely rare active chimneys are home to very specialized creatures that have evolved to live in these extremely hot habitats.
Correspondence in the journal Nature Geoscience, "Biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining"
Deep sea scientists are concerned about the the toxicity and turbidity of the material being dug up and its potential effects on nearby organisms.
Japan released a statement that said, in part, they have "conducted research for the anticipated impact of the test on the surrounding environments and carefully confirmed that no serious impact might occur." When pressed for more details, Elisa Muroi from Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) in Vancouver said, they were "unable to provide with the answers, as the answers to your questions involve lot of confidential information."
The future of deep sea mining
The potential risks go far beyond what might occur to organisms in and around hydrothermal vents. The International Seabed Authority has granted 27 contracts to explore for mining purposes - not only the polymetallic sulphides - or inactive hydrothermal vents, but also polymetallic nodules and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.
When it comes to mining the polymetallic nodules, which are potato shaped metal concretions made of manganese, cobalt, copper etc., the mining footprint would become much larger than it is for mining inactive hydrothermal vents. To mine these resource dense nodules, mining operations would essentially strip the habitat for organisms that have evolved there over millions of years.
There are still many unknowns when it comes to deep sea mining:
- What kind of distrubtion of deep sea organisms is there at potential mining sites?
- How will the sediment that gets kicked up affect deep sea life?
- How will large scale mining affect water chemistry?
As Dr. Cindy Van Dover puts it, "I think we could easily take one square metre of the seafloor away and not have a problem, or ten square metres or a hundred square metres for these manganese nodule beds, but what we don't know is the tipping point. Where is it going to matter for the health of the ocean. We have no clue, no clue at all. And if we screw it up, we can't fix it."