June 2019 · Volume 4, Issue 6                               Subscribe | Visit Website
Examples of megafauna photographed at the Peru Basin seafloor during AUV survey. Simon-Lledó et al. 2019.

26 years after experimental mining, a seabed ecosystem has yet to recover

In 1989, the largest attempt to model the impacts of a deep-sea mining operation was conducted across 1100 hectares of seafloor in the Peru Basin. The Disturbance and Recolonization Experiment (DISCOL) simulated polymetallic nodule extraction by dragging an 8-meter plough-harrow across a nodule field, creating 78 troughs that mimicked one likely consequence of dragging a nodule harvester across the seafloor.

The resulting impacts included the troughs themselves, which overturned sediment, buried nodules (no nodules were collected during this experiment), and created plumes which suffocated surrounding marine life. Within the plough-troughs, the ecosystems were completely upturned, with topography and sediment composition completely altered, while the surrounding benthos suffered various impacts depending on distance from the troughs.

Read more: 26 years after experimental mining, a seabed ecosystem has yet to recover.

From the Editor: US Mineral Policy and an atomic legacy.

Last year, for a completely unrelated project, I conducted a census of how many nuclear weapons had been lost at sea. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the interplay between military, scientific, and commercial use of the high seas, as well as, perhaps, the most improbable question of all: what happens if we find a lost nuclear weapon while mining the deep sea?

I asked nuclear anthropologist (an anthropologist who studies how nuclear weapons shape culture and society, not, as you might think, an anthropologist power by a heart of enriched uranium) Martin Pfeiffer to dig into the history of nuclear accidents at sea, the limited policy surrounding recovery, and the practical risks inherent in the incredibly unlikely potentiality that someone might find one of these lost weapons in the deep oceans. The resulting feature is both reassuring and perhaps a little alarming when you realize just how sloppy handling of the most destructive weapons ever created has been.

In more pragmatic news, this month the United States announced its new Federal Strategy to Ensure a Reliable Supply of Critical Minerals which calls for “more R&D … to develop exploration and mining tools suitable for the cold, saline, and pressurized deep sea” and discusses expanding mineral exploration into the deep oceans of the US EEZ. It’s likely too early to tell how serious the current United States’ government is about expanding into deep-sea mining.

Curiously, the report also notes that “As of October 2018, the International Seabed Authority has issued permits for 29 contractors, none of which are U.S. companies,” seemingly unaware that until the US ratifies UNCLOS, the ISA has no obligation to recognize US interests.

Read more: From the Editor: US Mineral Policy and an atomic legacy.

Imagining Worst Case Scenarios: The legacy of nuclear weapons lost at sea.

A B28 Hydrogen Bomb recovered by DSV Alvin during the Palomares incident.

What would you do if you found a nuclear weapon while preparing for, carrying out, or after conducting mining operations at sea? Would you recognize it as a nuclear weapon? Whom should one call? Who gets salvage rights?

Members of the deep-sea mining community no doubt already know the story of Project Azorian: an effort to covertly recover a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine using the Glomar Explorer. The cover story that Howard Hughes was testing an experimental polymetallic nodule mining system provided early economic projections and kicked off a flurry of excitement around the possibility of mining the deep sea.

Although unlikely, the possibility of encountering nuclear weapons—or nuclear materials more broadly—on the sea floor is not zero and will likely grow as a result of increased numbers of lost nuclear weapons and increases in sea mining activities. Low probability events do happen. In addition to the applicability of my basic advice—stop! leave it alone! get an adult!—for some other undersea hazards (such as dumped nuclear reactor cores, unlabeled chemical weapon caches, or ordnance from World War II) nuclear weapons and materials could pose unique risks to undersea exploration and mining operations.

Read more: Imagining Worst Case Scenarios: The legacy of nuclear weapons lost at sea.

Unpacking "A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals"


Released earlier this month, A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals is the United States blueprint for mineral extraction and security. Unique among recent administrations is an explicit call for increased deep-sea exploration within the US EEZ and a directive to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to conduct 1 - 2 years of feasibility studies, as well as a call for more private research and development into technologies necessary for exploitation of deep-sea resources as well as refining. 
In particular, it lists the following priorities for the next two years:

"Goal: Review regulations and consider proposing legislation to facilitate offshore critical mineral development

Offshore underwater mining from the seafloor and seawater represents an unexplored frontier in minerals production. Minerals are known to be located off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as off the coast of Alaska and U.S. territories and possessions. Domestically, BOEM has authority over offshore mineral development on the Federal Outer Continental Shelf, which largely overlaps the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. NOAA has the primary responsibility for authorizing activities for the exploration and commercial recovery of manganese nodules by U.S. companies under the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act. 
  • Provide recommendations to revise existing regulations to facilitate offshore mineral leasing.
  • Provide recommendations to improve the two-step exploration license and commercial recovery permitting process."
Notably, implementation of a critical mineral strategy in the US EEZ may supersede current seafloor protections in monument areas, including Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, both of which currently forbid mining within their boundaries. 

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Graduate student Berta Ramiro Sánchez‏ celebrates the publication of her first paper, on deep-sea sponges on seamounts
Deep-sea Mining News in Brief

 Image courtesy Grist.


Clean energy requires rare metals. Should we mine the ocean floor to get them?

(Grist) Our need for metals runs deep. How deep, you might ask? Why, up to 16,000 feet deep, in the form of potato-sized lumps of metal lying on the seafloor in some of the deepest parts of the oceans. We’ve been making sci-fi movies and writing books about it for decades, but commercial deep-sea mining might soon become a reality. 

Read more: Clean energy requires rare metals. Should we mine the ocean floor to get them?


Computer rendition of a seabed mining operation. (Image by Phil Pauley)

DeepGreen closer to ocean mining battery metals after Swiss cash injection

( Canada’s DeepGreen Metals, a start-up planning to extract cobalt and other battery metals from small rocks covering the seafloor, has secured the bulk of the $150 million it needs to carry out its first feasibility studies.

Read More: DeepGreen closer to ocean mining battery metals after Swiss cash injection

Recent Press Headlines

(Maritime Executive) NOC: Environmental Impact of Deep-Sea Mining can Last Decades.

(Dredging and Port Construction) Call for freeze on deep-sea mining.

(Science) Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science.

(Pacific Standard) Are there potential downsides of going 100 percent renewable energy?

(EurekAlert!) €10 million Atlantic survey seeks to uncover health of deep ocean

(Dredging and Port Construction) Deep-sea problems: Mining industy still facing restrictions.

(Think Progress) More electric cars means more destructive mining.

(Open Access Government) As deep-sea science is out-paced by exploitation, can catastrophe be averted?

(New York Post) How the CIA and Howard Hughes dug deep to retrieve sunken Soviet ship.

Minerals Under Water: The Science and Politics of the new Frontier for Extractive Industries

Wednesday, August 28, 2019
University of Delaware

Join members of the deep-sea community for a presentation of chapters for Minerals Under Water: The Science and Politics of the new Frontier for Extractive Industries, which  synthesizes the most current knowledge on the topic across natural and social science disciplines. The book is timely as mining under water in both marine and freshwater systems is gaining traction worldwide and the environmental and social impact of the extraction is being widely debated.

The book will be an anthology that is being developed as part of the University of Chicago’s Summits Series on Environmental Science and Policy, under the review of series co-editors Professor Saleem H. Ali and Dr. Andrew Thaler, in association with the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.


Abstracts are still being accepted.We welcome academics and practitioners collaborating on chapters, as well as inclusion of scholars from developing countries. Contributions from all ranges of disciplines are invited. Book chapters should be approximately 3000 to 5000 words and written in professional academic cadence with citations, as the manuscript will undergo rigorous peer review. Abstract of 100-200 words due by June 30, 2019. Full chapters due by August 1, 2019.

Keynote Speakers include Dr. Samantha Smith, Head of Sustainability and External Relations, Global Sea Mineral Resources and Conn Nugent, Project Director, Seabed Mining Project, The Pew Charitable Trust.

DeepGreen raises $150 million as it advances towards production

A nodule harvester. Image courtesy DeepGreen.

DeepGreen Metals has secured $150 million in funding through a partnership with Allseas Group to launch the mining company’s first large-scale feasibility studies. These trials, slated for completion in 2023, will help pave the way for commercial exploitation of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. DeepGreen views polymetallic nodule extraction as an essential step towards a circular, fossil-fuel-free economy. Their claims in the CCZ are estimated to contain over 900 million wet tonnes of polymetallic nodules.

“Extracting battery metals like nickel and cobalt from terrestrial mines is facing many challenges, and the environmental, CO2 and social costs are simply too high. Seafloor polymetallic nodules contain more than enough base metals that the world needs to get to a clean energy economy, and they require no blasting, drilling or digging. Indeed, our life cycle sustainability analysis shows that, with regards to NMC batteries with copper connectors for electric vehicles, ocean nodules generate at least 75% less CO2 when compared to producing these metals from land ores,” says DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron.

DeepGreen intends to have commercial production underway by 2025.

Read more: DeepGreen raises $150 million as it advances towards production.

Visit DSM Observer
DSM Observer is a free online resource for deep-sea mining professionals, providing access to the latest news and information about the industry in a single place. Our monthly e-newsletter features updates on technology, business news, deep sea science, environmental issues, and policy.

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DSM Observer is published by Blackbeard Biologic: Science and Environmental Advisors, via a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Editor-in-chief: Andrew Thaler
Copyright © 2019 Blackbeard Biologic: Science and Environmental Advisors, All rights reserved.

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