Deep Ocean Mission

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    Recently, the Union Cabinet has approved the long pending Deep Ocean Mission.

    About the Mission

    • The development of the mission has been going on since 2018.
    • It aims to study biodiversity, impact of climate change, and establish an offshore marine station to explore sources of thermal energy.
    • It is expected to cost Rs. 4,077 crore over the next five years.
      • The estimated cost for the first phase of three years (2021-2024) would be Rs. 2,823.4 crore.
    • The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) will be the nodal ministry implementing this multi-institutional mission.
    • India has been allotted a site of 75,000 square kilometres in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for exploitation of Polymetallic Nodules (PMN).
      • India was the first country to receive the status of a ‘Pioneer Investor’ in 1987 and was given an area of about 1.5 lakh sq km in the CIOB for nodule exploration.
      • In 2002, India signed a contract with the ISA and after complete resource analysis of the seabed 50 per cent was surrendered and the country retained an area of 75,000 sq km.

     

    (Image Courtesy: TH)

     

    Six Components

    • Manned Submersible and Integrated Mining System
      • Under the first component, a manned submersible will be developed to carry three people to a depth of 6,000 metres in the ocean with a suite of scientific sensors and tools.
        • If this works, India would be among a handful of countries able to launch an underwater mission at such depths.
        • Currently, such technology and expertise is now available with only five countries namely, the US, Russia, France, Japan and China.
      • An Integrated Mining System will be also developed for mining PMN at those depths in the central Indian Ocean.
    • Ocean Climate Change Advisory Services
      • The second component involves developing Ocean Climate Change Advisory Services, which entails developing a suite of observations and models to understand and provide future projections of important climate variables on seasonal to decadal time scales.
    • Deep Sea Flora and Fauna
      • The third component is searching for deep sea flora and fauna, including microbes and studying ways to sustainably utilise them.
    • Sources of Hydrothermal Minerals 
      • The fourth component is to explore and identify potential sources of hydrothermal minerals that are sources of precious metals formed from the earth’s crust along the Indian Ocean mid-oceanic ridges.
    • OTEC Powered Desalination Plants
      • The fifth component involves studying and preparing detailed engineering design for offshore Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) powered desalination plants.
    • Ocean Biology and Engineering Experts
      • The sixth component is aimed at grooming experts in the field of ocean biology and engineering. This component aims to translate research into industrial applications and product development through on-site business incubator facilities.

     

    Significance

    • It will pave the way for further studies and research into deep-sea biodiversity.
    • As the ocean will be monitored continuously, every slight change in climate will be noted, leading to better data collections and hence improved actions.
    • The exploration studies of minerals will pave the way for commercial exploitation in the near future, as and when commercial exploitation code is evolved by the ISA.
    • It is envisaged that 10 per cent of recovery of that large reserve can meet the energy requirement of India for the next 100 years.
    • It has been estimated that 380 million metric tonnes of PMN are available at the bottom of the seas in the Central Indian Ocean. India’s Exclusive Economic Zone spreads over 2.2 million square kilometres.

     

    Concerns and Suggestion

    • Deep ocean is home to unique species that have adapted themselves to conditions such as less oxygen, poor or no sunlight, high pressure and extremely low temperatures. Mining in the deep ocean can lead to the disrupted ecological balance for these species or even extinction if done unregulated.
    • Also, there are threats of oil and chemical spills from the vessels operating at the site and also the water, sound and light pollution hampering the natural life of the deep sea fauna.
    • Since the biodiversity of the deep sea remains partially or completely unknown and very less understood, it is difficult to carry out the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and frame appropriate guidelines.
    • There have been concerns regarding the sediment plumes that will be generated as the suspended particles can rise to the surface harming the filter feeders in the upper ocean layers.
    • Although strict guidelines have been framed, they need better and stricter enforcement.  A new set of exploitation guidelines are being worked out and discussions are on with the ISA.
    • More research and development in the area is needed to understand how the technology can be scaled up and used efficiently.

     

    Deep Ocean

    • It is that part of the ocean which is dark, cold, food-poor, subject to intense pressure, and typically deeper than 200 meters.
    • It is generally defined as the depth at which light begins to dwindle, typically around 200 meters (656 feet).
      • The top 200 meters of the ocean are known as the Sunlight or Euphotic Zone. Plants, who convert the sun’s energy into food via photosynthesis, form the basis of the food chain at these depths, where there is indeed sunlight.
      • At 200 meters depth, the Twilight Zone begins, where light starts to decrease rapidly. 
      • Ocean depths greater than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) are completely devoid of light and photosynthesis does not take place.
    • In the absence of proper sunlight, the deep ocean is cold, with an average temperature of only 4°C (39°F).
    • These depths are also subject to extreme pressure, from about 40 to over 110 times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.
    • Despite these extreme conditions, life has found a way to thrive even at great ocean depths, and with each new mission to explore the deep, scientists keep making new discoveries that increase the understanding of the planet and its systems.

     

    (Image Courtesy: NOAA)

     

    International Seabed Authority

    • Created in 1994, it is an autonomous international organisation established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the UNCLOS.
    • Mandate: To ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed related activities.
      • States Parties to UNCLOS organize and control all mineral-resources-related activities through ISA.
    • In accordance with Article 156 (2) of UNCLOS, all States Parties to UNCLOS are ipso facto members of ISA.
      • As of May 2020, ISA has 168 members.
      • India is also a member.
    • Headquarters: Kingston, Jamaica.
    • The Area and its resources are the common heritage of mankind. The Area covers around 54 per cent of the total area of the world’s oceans.

     

    (Image Courtesy: ISA)

     

    Polymetallic Nodules

    • PMN (also known as manganese nodules) are potato-shaped, largely porous nodules found in abundance carpeting the sea floor of world oceans in deep sea.
    • Composition: Besides manganese and iron, they contain nickel, copper, cobalt, lead, molybdenum, cadmium, vanadium, titanium, of which nickel, cobalt and copper are considered to be of economic and strategic importance.
    • They lie scattered on the Indian Ocean floor at depths of about 6,000 m and the size can vary from a few millimetres to centimetres.
    • Metals can be extracted and used in electronic devices, smartphones, batteries and even for solar panels.
    • Apart from the CIOB, PMNs have been identified from the central Pacific Ocean, in the area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
    • The ISA has entered into contracts for exploration for PMNs, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed with 29 contractors.
      • China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and also some small islands such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati have joined the race for deep-sea mining.

     

    (Image Courtesy: DSMO)

    Source: TH