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Raw materials from the ocean

Environmentally Friendly, Lucrative, and Beneficial to Society? Experts Discuss Deep-sea Mining

Since they were first discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, manganese nodules from the deep sea have attracted great interest at various times. Up to 20 cm in diameter, these nodules contain magnesium, iron, silicone, aluminium, nickel, copper and cobalt in addition to the trace element manganese. Since the 1970s there have been many business- and government-sponsored attempts to develop procedures for mining manganese nodules and other deep-sea resources such as ore slurries. But none of them has been successful. Apart from the technical challenge, many unanswered questions remain: what degree of environmental harm is acceptable? Who should be allowed to mine these resources? And to whom should the profits go? At a recent workshop on “Deep-Sea Mining: an Uncertain Future?” organised by the IASS and GEOMAR - Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, experts addressed vexing unresolved questions about deep-sea mining.

A bulk cutter for deep-sea mining, developed by the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals. ©Nautilus MineralsA bulk cutter for deep-sea mining, developed by the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals. ©Nautilus Minerals

In his introduction to the workshop, IASS Executive Director Klaus Töpfer stressed that deep-sea mining should not be viewed in isolation: “We also need to consider alternatives like the circular economy and more efficient utilisation of resources.”  Töpfer warned that the kind of mistakes made in the regulation of air pollutants should not be repeated. The short-lived drop in air pollution in the 1970s was simply the result of taller chimneys dispersing emissions over a larger area; filter technologies were only introduced later. “In the case of deep-sea mining, we should leapfrog the high chimney, the end of the pipe, to more sustainable options”, urged Töpfer.

How can present and future generations benefit from deep-sea mining?

Despite growing interest in deep-sea mining, there is still little understanding of the potential impacts of these activities on the environment, society, and the economy. According to the oceanographer John Jamieson from GEOMAR, “Discussion amongst experts from a wide range of backgrounds, in a forum such as this meeting, and based on a foundation of sound scientific data and information, is necessary for informed decision-making on the sustainable development and regulation of this future activity.” All the participants agreed that environmental harm was inevitable in the exploitation of deep-sea resources. Side effects of extraction, such as the sediment plumes that result from mining and lifting, should be kept to an absolute minimum, so organisms that live on the ocean floor (e.g. corals, sponges) are not buried. “This is one of the greatest technological challenges and could significantly reduce the footprint of the impacted areas”, explained Phil Weaver from Seascape Consultants, a consultancy firm leading the EU MIDAS project on the possible environmental effects of deep-sea mining.

We need comprehensive regulation of deep-sea mining.  But this is easier said than done, because the international ocean floor is part of the “common heritage of mankind”. That means that the resources there belong to all nations, not just those that get to them first. “The common heritage principle requires us to ensure that seabed mining develops in an equitable, rational and ecologically sound way that benefits both present and future generations”, underlined Kristina Gjerde from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “To effectively implement this principle, we will need to firstly accelerate our scientific understanding so we can protect the marine environment and not lose vital biological diversity and ecosystem services; secondly rethink how the International Seabed Authority allocates access to mineral rights to ensure a proper balance of opportunities; and thirdly develop an effective system of monitoring, control and compliance so that any authorised mining proceeds in a safe and cautious manner.” Other participants also stressed the necessity of environmental targets, indicators and monitoring of the defined measures.

But apart from environmental and regulatory matters, the question of the profitability of deep-sea mining is also unclear. Some participants asserted that such mining is not viable, given the high investment required and weak metal prices. Others predicted that deep-sea mining will be an important sector in about 20 years time. But they, too, advocated slow-paced development in the light of countless uncertainties. Experiences from land-based mining and petroleum development suggest that an influx of income into a state’s economy can be a very mixed blessing, particularly for small and developing states. They can face an array of institutional, social, environmental, economic, and regulatory difficulties, many of which (metaphorically like a ‘curse’) may be unexpected, or at first glance seem unrelated to the resources.

IASS to publish briefings on deep-sea mining for journalists and politicians

The workshop aimed to encourage a better understanding of the broader issues underlying questions of the sustainability of deep-sea mining. Jeff Ardron, who conducts research on the governance of deep-sea mining at the IASS, was pleased with the outcome of two days of intensive discussions: “I think we all agreed that this issue will not go away, and that now we have a real opportunity to set it up with far-sighted policies, before it begins. One thing that really hit home was that these sorts of discussions concerning its sustainability were not happening anywhere else. We were The Discussion! The International Seabed Authority is so busy developing regulations and dealing with license applications, that it doesn’t really have the time to sit back and ask if this is a good idea or not. Some Pacific Island States have had public consultations, which is a very good thing, but not always were the bigger questions, like an overall economic strategy, discussed.”

When dealing with minutiae, we mustn’t forget more fundamental questions, including the question of indicators to measure the success or failure of deep-sea mining or the question of the benefits or harms it might bring to our economies, societies and the environment.

To keep journalists and politicians informed about this issue, the IASS will publish briefings on various aspects of deep-sea mining in the coming months and integrate them into relevant international processes.

For more information, see:



Gold at the Bottom of the Sea: Ours for the Taking?

Myths and realities of deep-sea mining

lava pillowsLavakissen

Some researchers think that the deep sea could become a treasure chest for humanity, full of gold, silver, cobalt, and other minerals – enough to feed our consumer societies for centuries and lift poor nations out of poverty.

Others are more doubtful.

In a world of eternal darkness, cold temperatures, and pressures powerful enough to crush titanium submarines, deep-sea mining might seem like a bit of a crazy idea. That anything could even live down there would appear even more unlikely. That the seafloor is, in some places, littered with rock balls sometimes as big as tennis balls, chock full of valuable metals, seems stranger still… But once you know where to look, the deep sea is full of such surprises. Some of these surprises are being discussed this week in Berlin, where experts are at a workshop hosted by GEOMAR and the IASS to debate the future of deep-sea mining.

Manganese nodules contain mainly magnesium and iron, but also silicon, aluminum, nickel, copper, and cobalt, which are used in stainless steel production as well as specialty metals.

Treasures of the deep sea: Manganese nodules contain mainly magnesium and iron, but also silicon, aluminum, nickel, copper, and cobalt, which are used in stainless steel production as well as specialty metals. Photo: BGR

When I started this research about two years ago, most of the popular press was saying that we are running out of minerals on land. As it turns out, this is not true at all… No matter, the story continues that we need not worry because there is all this great stuff at the bottom of the sea. Just like oil and gas, we will turn our focus on the deep sea to serve our future mineral and metal needs. But the more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that this was a huge over-simplification, the wishful thinking of a few who were heavily invested in the idea.

Deep-sea mining: party like it is 1965

These very convenient myths/assumptions have been distorting discussions on deep-sea mining for decades, and can be traced to the publication of a single book back in 1965, The Mineral Resources of the Sea, which wildly over-estimated the riches of the sea while at the same time painting a gloomy picture of what was left on land. A few years later, in 1967, this book was quoted at length in an historic UN address by Malta’s Ambassador, Arvid Pardo, which led to the negotiation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Fast-forward 50 years and we are still acting like it is 1965, where the deep sea will solve all our problems.

With a number of recent news stories, it is rather easy to forget that no one has actually done any deep-sea mining. It is all still exploration, which is very costly, with no financial returns. Someone has to pay for those exploration bills… and believe that money will eventually be made…. In my view, this has definitely influenced the international discourse, mainly at the United Nations and its regulatory body, the International Seabed Authority. To date, 17 countries (including one consortium) have successfully applied for 26 licenses to explore for minerals in the deep sea outside of national borders. China has recently applied for one more, which if successful would mean that it holds four licences – more than any other nation. Who will say when enough is enough? Will the Chinese (or another nation) be allowed to get a 5th and 6th license too? These licenses are huge, some of them larger than small countries.

Heavy equipment for deep-sea mining: This bulk cutter is designed to dig through hydrothermal vent fields to mine ores containing gold, copper, silver and other metals which would then be pumped to up the surface. Photo: Nautilus Minerals

Deep-sea mining and the CIA

There is also another element that occasionally appears in the DSM story, which is that of intentional misrepresentation. Arguably the most audacious example was that of the top secret 1974 CIA effort to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine. A massive ship, the Glomar Explorer was purpose-built by the eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes under the pretense of deep-sea nodule mining.  Hughes’ involvement further perpetuated the myth that nodule mining was already being taken seriously by America’s industrial barons. This misperception may have had a role to play in the involvement of other industrialised nations in the global nodule hunt back in the 1970s.

In reality, the deep sea was, and remains, a difficult and expensive environment in which to prospect for minerals and pilot test new technologies. Between 1974 and 1982 a consortium of Western mining companies spent US$ 650 million in an ultimately failed attempt to bring nodule mining to commercial readiness. High extraction costs combined with several other factors, including inflated valuations of the mineral resource, political interference, and collapsing metal prices, contributed to the failure.

Mining our common heritage

Legally, deep-sea mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind, which sounds great, but no one is really sure what this means. Proceeds from deep-sea mining are supposed to be shared. But how exactly this would happen, and who exactly would receive the money, or if there will be any money left over after expenses are paid, is very unclear. Legal experts will be on hand this week at the workshop to participate in these discussions.

While industry and sponsor governments remain hopeful, some environmentally-oriented researchers are very concerned.

“Personally, I do not believe that the recovery of minerals from the deep ocean, no matter from which ecosystem, will be of any benefit to society,” says Sabine Christiansen, a deep-sea biologist and consultant who has worked for a variety of non-governmental organisations and is currently a fellow at the IASS. She fears that it will take efforts away from research into transforming consumption patterns. She would like to see an economy that is more circular, recycling metals more efficiently rather than thinking that we can always dig up new ones.

Still, the prospect of deep-sea mining (DSM) does offer some opportunities to re-think how we do business with the environment. Sebastian Unger, coordinator of the Ocean Governance Group, believes that “Emerging deep-sea mining activities are an important test case whether we continue with ‘business as usual’ or take societal transformation seriously.”

Results from the workshop will be summarised by the IASS and posted on our website.

For more information, contact:;;

Header photo: GEOMAR


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