News / Asia

Ocean Floor is Prime Target of Mining Industry

This undated photo shows a diver off Australia's coast.
This undated photo shows a diver off Australia's coast.
Phil Mercer
There has been a new call for the incoming government in Papua New Guinea to stop the Canadian mining company Nautilus from going ahead with a deep sea mining project.  Conservationists say most mining projects in the country have been an environmental disaster.  In recent years, there has been a rush by companies to explore the sea floor for concentrated deposits of valuable minerals found around hydrothermal vents.

The next great frontier for the mining industry could be hydrothermal vents that lie deep on the ocean floor.  The super-hot flues create deposits of sulfide, which contain precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc.
Chris Yeats, an ore deposit geologist at Australia's state-sponsored scientific and research organization, CSIRO, believes that plans by Nautilus Minerals, which has a license to mine sulfide on the floor of the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea, will be safe and productive.
"The activities that Nautilus are proposing are something like plowing a field or raking your garden, that you're, you're, you're stirring up the environment, but you're not fundamentally changing it," said Yeats.

Nautilus has not commented on its plans, nor on calls for authorities in Papua New Guinea to abandon the deep sea project, which would involve sophisticated marine technology.
Stefan Williams from the University of Sydney's Australian Center for Field Robotics is helping exploration companies peer into the dark depths of the ocean.  
"One of the main challenges obviously [is] the environment, then pressures that are associated with depths, so actually getting equipment into deep water it has to be designed to withstand those kinds of pressures and corrosive environment of saltwater," said Williams.   

His work on vehicles capable of high-resolution surveys of the sea floor is casting light on a mysterious world.

"There's not a lot down there.  It's kind of a big, muddy flat plain for the most part but then you come across some weird and wonderful sea life, things [you] just don't know what to make of - pretty astounding," explained Williams.
Asked whether he thinks this is an area ripe for exploration in the future, Williams was optimistic.
"I think so.  There are a lot of areas of the ocean that we don't know a lot about," he said.  "Some people have suggested we know a lot more about the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean just because it's something we can see.  And so I think there will be good opportunities for extensive exploration and understanding what resources are available in these deep-sea environments and the possibility, I guess, of exploiting those in the future."      
Cindy Lee Van Dover, a professor of biological oceanography, has explored almost all of the world's hydrothermal vent fields.  Chains of these mineral-rich outlets lie along fault lines, including the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
She says that the precise impact of deep-sea mining needs to be known before the exploitation of such valuable resources can begin.
"If mining of extraction of metals on the seabed takes place, we'd like to know what happens and how quickly the animals come back," she said.  "We'd like to work with industry to understand what baselines we really need to put in place to be able to monitor the change as the animals come back and recolonize.  If one site recovers from mining very quickly in a matter of years or decades, maybe that's not such a bad thing, but we need to understand how to know that."   
Seabed mining used to be far too expensive to be worthwhile, but there are concerns from conservationists that advances in technology, making mining more feasible, pose a threat to the world's oceans.
The success or failure of the Nautilus deep sea project is seen as crucial to the future of deep-sea mining, according to Charles Roche, the executive director of the Australia-based Mineral Policy Institute.
"This is not going to be a bonanza," said Roche.  "It is going to be a very small mine actually, especially compared to some of the larger terrestrial mines.  It's really a trial mine.  It's an experimental one that the locals in Papua New Guinea like to call it that they are guinea pigs - that it's an experimental mine.  So really this is about proving the technology and the concept.  What they are trying to do is prove that we can extract the minerals from the bottom of the sea and it is economically viable."    

The first commercial deep-sea mine is expected to begin in Papua New Guinea next year and exploration is booming across the South Pacific and in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
International regulators set up by the United Nations have signed four new contracts with groups looking to explore the ocean floor.  This includes agreements with government and private organizations from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

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