Deep sea mining's new frontier poses environmental risks

Today we explore the race to the bottom of the sea floor and why some see great promise in deep sea mining, while others fear it promises environmental peril.
A conger eel (Conger oceanicus) cruises through a thicket of Lophelia pertusa coral. (U.S. Geological Survey)
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The surface of the Earth is set to get a lot more crowded over the next 15 years. The UN estimates the global population will surge by another 1.2 billion. And that means a lot of new homes, electronic devices, and infrastructure. 

All those things require a lot of minerals and the coming demand has some mining companies beginning to look beyond the deposits accessible on land.

A blue whale swims in the deep blue sea off the coast of Mirissa, in southern Sri Lanka, April 5, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Barton (Joshua Barton/Reuters)

Deep sea mining is coming

Mining the sea floor for minerals and precious metals is no longer science fiction. As companies gear up to make deep sea mining a reality, today our projectRipple Effect asks what the consequences could be.

A plume of sulphur and molten lava erupts from the West Mata volcano about 1,200 metres beneath the surface of the Pacific south of Samoa. ((National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Associated Press))

So far, the International Seabed Authority, or ISA, which regulates the seafloor, has granted 26 licenses to companies to explore various areas in international waters for deep sea mining. The ISA is currently drafting regulations on how the mining should occur, when that time comes.  

What type of regulation is necessary? 

A group of international researchers are urging caution and calling for the ISA to designate Marine Protected Zones:

  • Craig Smith is a professor of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii.
  • Matthias Haeckelis the Senior Scientist from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. 

 One Canadian company is set to break ground on the seafloor off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

  • Mike Johnston is the CEO of Nautilus Minerals Inc., and he was in Brisbane, Australia, where their project office is located.  

This segment was produced by The Current's Sonya Buyting.