Is Deep-Sea Mining Bad for the Environment?

There are reasons to be optimistic that this can be achieved without destroying these ecosystems. I am, however, loathe to trust big business to keep to the high road when they come to a crossroads and have to choose between that and their profit-margin.

And, China as a whole, has a terrible record when it comes to environmental issues.
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“… Chinese companies and government-supported funds have shown that they will go to the ends of the earth to acquire the resources needed to stoke their country’s industrial growth. Now China is angling to be first to exploit a source of minerals that has tempted and frustrated dreamers for almost 150 years: the floor of the deep sea.

In May an arm of the Chinese government submitted plans to explore the seafloor around an underwater ridge in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, where hot springs in the ocean bottom called hydrothermal vents have created deposits containing gold, silver, copper, nickel, cobalt, and tellurium (used in computers, CDs, and DVDs)…

… The richest lodes of undersea minerals are located at hydrothermal vents. Here, volcanic activity beneath the earth’s crust sends sulfur-rich plumes spewing up from gashes in the seafloor into the ocean, where the plumes support unique ecosystems of animals and microbes. Discovered in 1977, these communities aren’t directly based on sunlight and photosynthesis like every other ecosystem on earth, but on the chemicals in the plume…

… Since 1977 more than 1,300 species previously unknown to science have been discovered at the vents… The vents may also be where chemistry first became biology—that is, where life on earth began—and thus be scientifically priceless…

… Magma under the ocean floor heats seawater circulating through rocks above it; the heat causes gold, silver, copper, nickel, zinc, and other metals in the rock to leach into seawater that has percolated miles down through the seafloor crust… The heat then propels the seawater (now as hot as 750 degrees Fahrenheit and full of dissolved metal sulfides) back up through the crust, where it meets colder water. The shock of the cold makes the metal sulfides crystallize. The result: ‘seafloor massive sulfide deposits’ that are rich in valuable metals.

‘Massive’ is an understatement. One deposit of copper, iron, zinc, gold, and silver sulfides in the Atlantic is, at 600 feet across and 120 feet high, as big as the old Houston Astrodome. In 2009 the Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals, the leading seafloor-mining company, estimated that there are thousands of sulfide systems under the sea, with the potential to yield ‘several billion tons of copper’ alone each year.

The specter of China vacuuming up whatever it can from the seafloor has alarmed many scientists and environmentalists: a 2004 science meeting on seafloor mining produced a long list of possible environmental impacts, including extinctions and decimating the base of food chains

… That is especially worrisome given that many of those creatures live nowhere else on earth, are largely unknown to science, and have economic value that rivals the minerals’, says Rona. For instance, the microbes are sources of enzymes used in DNA fingerprinting, in detergents, to enhance the flow of oil from old wells, and to produce bioactive compounds that could prove effective against cancer or other diseases…

… The surest way to spare the vent creatures would be to mine only inactive vents, where the geysers have stopped and the ecosystem has died. Nautilus has not agreed to that, but says it will take steps to preserve vents… It plans to use undersea robots to move some vent animals away from the area being mined, establish refuges from which vent creatures can seed ecosystems recovering from mining, and allow one vent community to recover from mining before the company tackles adjacent sites.

China has not revealed whether it will take any vent-protecting steps…”