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Deep seabed mining

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on July 17, 2012

A revolution is afoot

For over forty years, deep seabed mining has been a continuing disappointment.  Since discovery of polymetallic minerals, such as manganese nodules and cobalt crusts, on the sea floor in the 1970s, prophets have asserted that large-scale extraction of these resources would alter the world economic balance.  Mineral prices, particularly those for copper and manganese would drop as the market was flooded.  The price of manufactured goods in general would go down as their component materials became cheaper.  A major (and highly controversial) portion of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reserved a portion of the profits from deep seabed mining in waters outside sovereign state jurisdiction, the Area, as the common heritage of mankind, envisioned as eradicating poverty worldwide.  As is apparent today, this did not come to pass.  The expense of mining the deep seabed turned out to be far greater than estimated; the volume of manganese nodules and cobalt crusts turned out to less than preliminary surveys suggested; and the prices of land-sourced minerals decreased as mining and processing techniques improved.  While applications are still being submitted for exploration and possible exploitation of deep seabed polymetallic mineral deposits, that is no longer where the action is.  In 1979, the first hydrothermal vent or “black smoker” was discovered in deep water off the Galapagos Islands.  These are vents for super-heated and sulfur-laden water from deep beneath the sea floor.  Many more have been discovered subsequently in all the world’s oceans.  At first they were considered scientific curiosities due to the unique life forms found adjacent to the vents.  In recent years, though, analysis has revealed that the vent chimneys themselves are rich not only in sulfur, but also in metals such as copper, cobalt, lead, zinc, silver, and gold.  The International Seabed Authority in Jamaica is now receiving applications for licenses for exploration for and exploitation of these polymetallic sulphides in the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean.  In the South Pacific, where black smokers have been found in deepwater within 200 nautical miles of some island nations, several companies have obtained licenses from those nations to exploit the minerals.  It remains to be seen if these efforts will be truly successful, but they have already progressed further in a few short years than the phantom polymetallic nodule industry did in forty.  

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