Deep-Sea Mining

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    In News

    • Recently, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science has warned that commercial deep-sea mining could pose a serious risk to ocean ecosystems.

    Key Takeaways

    • The paper has stressed particularly the cetacean population, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises and cautioned that any disturbance on any scale is long-lasting and irreversible.
    • The study has also highlighted that commercial-scale mining could damage the oceans in ways that are not yet fully understood, and at the expense of species that have been the focus of conservation efforts for many years.
    • Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep seabed, which covers two-thirds of the total seafloor.
    • Despite the risks to ocean ecosystems, the Pacific Island nation of Nauru plans to start deep-sea mining, invoking a two-year rule inserted as a part of the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). 
    • The “two-year rule” clause of the UNCLOS requires the ISA to put in place the governance infrastructure – the rules, regulations, and procedures governing the contours of deep-sea mining within two years of approval.
    • With the 11th Annual Deep Sea Mining Summit 2023 to be held in London, United Kingdom, it is expected that the agenda will include the “economic landscape and growth for deep sea mining and technological developments associated with commercialising”.

    Key issues:

    • Commercial-scale deep-sea mining could come at the expense of cetaceans like whales, dolphins, and porpoises, many of which are already endangered.
    • The interest in the mineral deposits of the seabed has grown due to depleting terrestrial deposits of metals such as copper, nickel, aluminium, manganese, zinc, lithium and cobalt.
    • Demand for these metals is also increasing to produce smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels and batteries.
    • The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has in recent years issued 31 contracts to explore deep-sea mineral deposits.

    What is Deep-sea mining?

    • About:
      • It refers to the extraction of minerals and other resources from the seabed, which can be found in large quantities in the deep ocean.
      • These minerals include metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements, as well as valuable resources such as oil and gas.

    Do You Know?

    Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a region spanning 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) across the central Pacific Ocean at depths of 4,000 – 5,500 metres.

    • It is a habitat for cetaceans, including baleen (mysticetes) and toothed whales (odontocetes).
    • Up to 30 cetacean populations, including globally endangered species like blue whales, can be found in the CCZ, where 17 exploratory deep-sea mining licenses have already been granted.
    • Major types of deep-sea mining
      • Manganese nodule mining: This involves collecting nodules of manganese, iron, and other metals that are scattered on the ocean floor.
      • Seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) mining: This involves extracting mineral deposits formed near hydrothermal vents, which can contain high concentrations of copper, zinc, and other metals.
      • Cobalt crust mining: This involves collecting crusts of cobalt, nickel, and other metals that form on the surface of seamounts.

    Importance of Deep-Sea mining

    • Depletion of land-based resources: Deep-sea mining presents an opportunity to access new sources of valuable resources such as cobalt and rare earth metals which are essential to modern technology and industry but are becoming increasingly scarce on land.
    • Growing demand for minerals:It has the potential to provide a reliable and abundant supply of minerals the demand for which is rapidly increasing, driven by the growth of industries such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, and consumer electronics.
    • Economic benefits: It has the potential to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and generate revenue for governments and companies.
    • Strategic importance: Developing a domestic supply of these resources is seen as strategically important for India as many of the minerals and metals that are found in deep sea mining, such as cobalt and rare earth metals, are essential to national security and defence.

    Major concerns of Deep-Sea mining

    • Environmental impacts: Mining operations can disturb and damage fragile deep-sea ecosystems, including coral reefs, hydrothermal vents, and other important habitats.
    • Noise pollution: The process generates noise pollution that can overlap with the frequencies at which cetaceans communicate, causing auditory masking and behavioural changes in marine mammals.
    • Thermal pollution: The mining vehicles also generate sediment plumes that could smother the benthic species at the bottom of the ocean.
    • Regulatory gaps: There is currently a lack of international regulations governing deep-sea mining, which could lead to environmental harm and other negative impacts.
    • Technological challenges: Deep-sea mining requires advanced technologies and equipment that are currently under development, and may not be cost-effective or efficient enough to make the practice commercially viable.
    • Social and economic impacts: The potential benefits of deep-sea mining may not be evenly distributed, and could lead to social and economic disparities between different communities.

    Government Steps

    • National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR): It was established in 2020 by the Ministry of Earth Sciences in Goa, which is tasked with exploring the country’s deep-sea mineral wealth.
    • Draft Deep Seabed Mining Regulations, 2021: It has been formulated by the Indian government to provide a legal framework for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
    • International collaborations: The government is also considering setting up a nodal agency to regulate deep sea mining activities in the country, in line with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

    Way Ahead

    • Overall, while deep-sea mining has the potential to meet growing demand for key minerals, there are significant challenges and concerns that must be addressed to ensure that the practice is sustainable, responsible, and beneficial for all stakeholders.
    • However, it is important to note that deep sea mining also presents several challenges, including environmental impacts and the need for technological and regulatory development.
    • It is crucial that any deep-sea mining operations are conducted in a sustainable and responsible manner to minimize negative impacts on the marine environment and ensure the long-term availability of these resources.

     Source: TH