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An Unacceptable Solution: Why Deep-Sea Ecosystems Are Not Expendable in the Quest for Clean Energy

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

Edited by Jordan C. Schneider of Sea Sapiens

The deep sea is a mysterious place. The animals living 4,000 meters below the surface have evolved over millennia under crushing pressure, without light, in extreme cold. The ocean floor is therefore not teeming with life, but the life that does exist varies greatly. Researchers and explorers are constantly finding strange new creatures and ecosystems in the depths, but the true extent of this biological diversity remains unknown.

However, we do know that some of the animals and bacteria living in the deep sea hold many secrets that may help humanity. Life below may hold the key for a future vaccine; marine organisms commonly have antiviral properties that are helpful to humans. A red algae, Griffithsia, was found to contain a protein active against MERS, a coronavirus discovered in 2012. It is one of over forty marine compounds currently being studied for antiviral properties.

Deep-sea organisms may also hold a solution to climate change. Four thousand meters down, in the Clarion Clipper Zone, scientists discovered carbon dioxide-absorbing bacteria that account for 10 percent of the carbon dioxide sequestered by the ocean. Modern science could utilize this newly discovered bacteria to sequester the carbon dioxide that is warming our planet and causing climate change.

Unfortunately, many of the policy conversations around utilizing the deep ocean to benefit humanity are not about exploring and protecting the deep sea-life forms that could solve our climate and global health issues; rather, they are about exploiting the minerals within the substrate of the sea floor that provide a home for these creatures.

The bacteria, octopod, sea fans, and fish that make the deep their home live among metal nodules, or rock-like structures that contain manganese, cobalt, copper, and nickel. These nodules are slow-growing, adding only a centimeter every one million years. But the deep-sea mining industry, which has been eyeing these deposits since the 1970s, wants to pull them up in a matter of minutes. The industry’s extraction efforts were hindered for decades by low public appetite for drilling and relatively low economic demand for these metals. Yet that’s all changed with the clean tech boom, which has increased demand for these metals to create batteries for electric cars, solar cells, and more. The World Bank says that to build enough electric storage to mitigate global temperature increases, supplies of nickel and cobalt would have to increase by 1000 percent. Elon Musk has said, "Nickel is our biggest fear for scaling lithium-ion cell production."

The mining industry points to the need for clean technology to justify its deep ocean extraction efforts, and in a greenwashing public relations maneuver that strains credulity, they claim it is the environmentally responsible thing to do.

The fact is that electric systems will not be the environmental saviors the media and corporations portray them to be unless we create electric systems, including batteries, from sustainably sourced materials. Any clean technology solutions we implement should not come at the expense of wiping out entire species or ecosystems, especially those that may hold the key to solving so many of humanity's problems. In this age of advanced innovation, we need to pursue a multi-pronged approach to a sustainable future, not a single environmental initiative with destructive side effects.

The mining industry insists that their impact on the oceans will be minimal, since they will only mine in small areas. However, the very nature of deep-sea mining can have unknown detrimental effects on the surrounding ecosystem. In deep-sea mining, to collect nodules, a surface ship lowers an underwater bulldozer (called a collector vehicle) to the bottom of the ocean. This machine uses hydraulic mechanisms (like a liquid vacuum cleaner) to pick up the nodules and the top 4-15 centimeters of the seabed. As the seafloor passes through the collector vehicle, clouds of sediment pass out the back, and the nodules travel to the surface in a tube. Once on the surface ship, the nodules are cleaned, and the unwanted sediment returns to the ocean. The plume of returned sediment is a silty material (made of dust, ash, organic residue, and more) that can float for miles – one study found a plume 15 km away from the mining site – clog filter feeders, smother organisms, and release toxic metals like mercury or lead. Plume mechanics and effects are not well understood, so their true impact on ocean life is still unknown, but early data show that we may lose numerous unstudied organisms from mining activites, which could have a cascade of negative ecological impacts – all in exchange for metals that supplement a short-sighted solution to shifting our society off fossil fuels.

For years, we have been taking from our planet more than we give. There is a future in which humans can benefit from our environment without destroying it, but by damaging critical habitat for species with potentially beneficial biological processes, the deep sea mining industry risks eliminating those opportunities before we know they exist.

No deep-sea mining should occur until every inch of the ecosystem is studied, documented, and protected for potential use. Thankfully, businesses are beginning to pull away from deep sea mining. Google, BMW, AB Volvo Group and Samsung SDI recently signed a World Wildlife Federation call for a moratorium on mining, committing to not use any materials from the seabed in their production. Policymakers should also make sustainably sourcing materials a key requirement for any new legislation supporting clean technology deployment, and they should support research and development for other emerging technologies to work in tandem with electrification efforts.

Photo by Schmidt Ocean Institute

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