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006 -Deep-sea mining special

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station description Discussion about all things deep-sea science.
The Deep-Sea Podcast
Duration: 01:07:38
Our world is rapidly changing. As we move away from fossil fuels and our use of electronics increases, demand is climbing for a handful of metals key to the manufacture of modern technology. Mining the deep sea may meet these demands but is probably the most contentious issue the community is facing
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Our world is rapidly changing. As we move away from fossil fuels and our use of electronics increases, demand is climbing for a handful of metals key to the manufacture of modern technology. Mining the deep sea may meet these demands but is probably the most contentious issue the community is facing right now. Is there a net benefit for the deep sea; funding research and understanding, addressing climate change, and encouraging developing nations? Or is the deep sea too fragile and too unknown to be responsibly exploited?We bite off far more than we can chew by taking on this issue in a deep-sea mining special episode. Luckily, we have some guests we can call on to help us understand the issue. Professor Jeffrey Drazen of University of Hawai`i at Manoa explains just what deep-sea mining is and its ecological impacts. We then speak with Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA, comprised of 167 member states and the European Union, regulates and controls all mineral-related activities in the open ocean – that’s the majority of the planet!We also have current news and a chat with Don Walsh, who of course it turns out, has first-hand experience with the complexities of mining in the ocean. You can submit your own ‘tails from the high seas’ about an experience you have had offshore or pose us a question on:podcast@armatusoceanic.com Theme – Hadal Zone Express by Märvel (http://marvel.nu/) LinksECO Magazine Deep-Sea Heroes: http://digital.ecomagazine.com/publication/?i=683954&ver=html5&p=22Scary bigfin squid video: https://youtu.be/L8xXnVkOGsABigfin squid paper: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0241066Eel swarm: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967063720302107ISA website: https://www.isa.org.jm/DeepData: https://www.isa.org.jm/deepdataUNESCO report: http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1535/#deepseamining #deepsea #mining #ManganeseNodules #manganese #PolymetallicNodules #Polymetallic #ISA #InternationalSeabedAuthority #MichaelLodge #LawOfTheSea #HighSea #InternationalLaw #conservation #EnvironmentalImpact #seamount #HydrothermalVent #ProtectedArea #ProtectedHabitat
Snippet Transcripts
So our next guest is the U. N. Secretary General. Mr Michael Lodge, who is from the International Seabed Authority. So Michael Lodge has 28 years of experience as a public international lawyer and as a strong background in the field of law of the sea, as well as 10 years judicial experience in the UK and South pacific. He spent many years living and working in the South pacific and was one of the lead negotiators for the south pacific island states of the 1995 fish stock agreements amongst to be honest, countless other roles that are probably too long to read out here, but he's also a barrister of grazing in London, so he currently heads the U. N. International Seabed Authority based in Jamaica. So who better to talk to today than the Secretary general, Michael Lodge. The first question obviously to you is is the international Seabed Authority or the I I say for the benefit of the audience who people may have not have heard of this before? What is the I say? What rule does it play in the whole deep sea mining business? Well, highland thanks for having me on. Well what is the I. S. A. Uh So on its face. The I. S. A. Is an intergovernmental organization. It's part of the United Nations Family. It has 100 and 68 member states and it was established by the U. N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1994. That's the sort of official bit. But more accurately, what is the I. S. A. It is a unique experiment in international relations. I've seen. It described as a high point in an international communitarian government. Well get out on the front door. It's the only international organization that actually has regulatory jurisdiction over a single global resource and in this case, that resource would be seabed minerals. So the concept behind it is that there is a shared space, which sometimes we refer to as a global commons, and the ocean Is such a shared space. Another example of a shared space might be, for example, Antarctica, which has been recognized as shared between all nations since 1959. That concept also applies to at least part of the ocean, not all of the ocean, but part of it. Uh you know, the ocean is a very complex place, as you as you know, Yes, scientifically biologically geologically, but also legally. So the ocean is split into different maritime zones where the Law of the Sea Convention recognizes sovereignty or sovereign rights over some of those zones. I guess a lot of people will be somewhat familiar, at least with the idea that most Coastal states have an entitlement to 200 mile exclusive economic zone. They also have a continental shelf jurisdiction in the case where they have a continental shelf, uh and then there's this separate regime for the seabed beyond 200 miles. And that's where I. S. A. Comes in. We are we have this regulatory jurisdiction over this shared common space beyond 200 miles. I think one of the things that I think your podcast does very well is that it helps people to conceptualize what is the deep sea and how big it is. I think most people are really a very little idea of what 200 miles looks like in the see how far away is the is the deep sea and how big it is. The I. S. A for example, has jurisdiction over 54% Of the ocean that is the size of the space beyond 200 miles. I was I was quite surprised recently to find out that the exclusive economic zones were only established in the early 80s. You know, it's a relatively new thing is you just take it for granted growing up, the coastal countries have a certain amount of space that belongs to them, but it's actually a relatively new concept. Yes. Well, that's right. I mean, it took it took many, many years and many failed attempts to negotiate a law of the sea. Uh you know, then that's why the 1982 convention is regarded as so sacrosanct, because uh and the constitution for the oceans, because it was so difficult to reach that consensus among nations. And uh you know, there were there were two previous law of the sea uh conferences in the 20s and 50 that failed to reach Agreement. And then it was only by the 70s, really leading up to 1982, that we managed to reach agreement on this concept of the exclusive economic zone. Where are we right now with deep sea mining? What's, what does the landscape look like right now in terms of how close are we to large scale mineral extraction in the areas beyond national jurisdiction? So I guess we're a lot closer than we were 25 years ago, but it's debatable how actually close we are. I think what has happened in the last, say, 25 years is that a number of claims have been made for exploration sites? Exploration has advanced tremendously. Technology has advanced tremendously. Knowledge has advanced tremendously. And so we are at a stage where conceivably deep sea mining could start on could be commercially viable within the reasonably foreseeable future, but it's extremely difficult to put a finger on precisely how long that is because there's there's still a lot of uncertainties out there. What's the position of the essay in terms of ensuring seabed mining, meats and glades, transparent environmental impact assessments and things like that? I mean, how does how does I say try ensure deep sea mining is not going to be harmful to the environment? Well, first of all, you have to remember that the reason esa was created essentially was to prevent unregulated deep sea mining. It was to prevent competition for resources to stop at that time. It was particularly, of course, in the Cold War period, the United States and the soviet Union, from competing, fighting over access to minerals, impose a sense of order and to prevent extraction from taking place unless it can take place in a regulated environment where there is equity of access between between all states. Another big reason was to simply to prevent the technologically advanced states from going ahead and doing this under the freedom of the of the high seas in a completely unrestrained way. The fundamental principle is that nobody can go to the deep sea to explore for minerals or even less to exploit minerals without the permission of ECE, without a contract from Nasa. So so far There's been, what? 30 is a 30 still exploration licences issued? So far, 22 different countries are into this now. Yes. uh so far, 30 different contracts. Their contracts and uh This this number has increased quite rapidly over the past few years. Uh you know, we started with I think six or seven back in about 2010 and uh it's escalated quite quite rapidly in recent years, which I think, you know, illustrates the growing interest in this sector in keeping with the whole deep sea theme. There's a couple of areas which are really, really interesting which have already been, they've already been contracts issued for one of the big famous one is the clarion cliff Burton fractures on. If anyone who works in science would probably heard of this. One question I came across was, was this idea of designation of large area of special environmental importance. But then there seemed to be some sort of confusion over so they were to clarify those are areas where scientists can go and perform baseline studies, right? But they're not the same areas where the mining may take place, should the permits be issued? Right. Right. No, they are different. So yes, the Sisi said, I mean it's a it's a C C. Z. Whichever way you want to refer to it. It's a very, very big area about I think about eight million square kilometres total size. Although the mineralized portion of that obviously is much much less. Probably about a third of that whole area is mineralized and it's it's probably the best known part of the deep ocean for Parliament, alec nodules, which you know is mineral that the resource that is of greatest interest at the moment we've issued I think about 16 contracts across that whole area, but we've also designated these areas of particular environmental interest A. Pes these are part of something that we call the regional Environmental Management Plan for the Clariion Cliff Burton Zone and the A. P. S. Are areas that are set aside so we will not issue exploration or mining contracts in those areas. There's a network of areas that are supposed to be representative of the various habitats that you find in the C. C. C. So they're effectively set aside as a conservation measure. The total area of those A. P. I. S. Is about 1.6 million square kilometers, which makes them one of the biggest protected areas on the planet. And they were selected through a pretty rigorous scientific process to be fully representative of different habitats. And then agreement was reached to designate these areas. Of course we we absolutely encourage scientific research in these areas. It would be would be important to find out what is there. So this is the second case study for like for example, that that popped up was was the Lost City. For those who don't know what the Lost City, the Lost City is a hydrothermal vent field that Scottish classic black smokers and all these really interesting vent communities around them. But what was happening there from what I understand dicey have granted an exploration licence to Poland for the lost City, but at the same time unesco have reported that the lost city qualifies as a unesco world Heritage site. How does that, how does that work then? That where I'm going with this is if it qualifies as a world Heritage site, what would we have to bring to not grant the license? Because that seems to us raise the bar pretty high, that sort of sort of circle the lawsuit and said this is a really important deep sea sight. And yet still pulling they're allowed to go and explore it for minerals. I don't know, it seems really weird conflict going on now. Yeah. Ok, so so there's quite a lot to unpick a complicated, isn't it? So, first of all, uh what is the lost city velocity is one of many hydrothermal vent sites around the world, not just on the mid atlantic ridge, although the mid atlantic ridge is obviously an area that has been very well explored in the past because it's reasonably accessible. But you know, we believe hydrothermal events occur pretty much all around the oceans, ridges, which is, I think about 60,000 kilometers of ridges around the planet. But yes, the Lost City is a site that is kind of charismatic one could say has been studied a lot and scientists are very interested in it and they've had a lot of access to it. You know, they've been studying the last city for years and years. Scientists have made their whole careers from studying events, which is great, it's fine and you know, in the process they become very attached to them and you can see why because yes, hydrothermal vents are charismatic ecosystems and super interesting you mentioned unesco. So the first point is that UNEsco doesn't actually have any jurisdiction in the deep sea. So I think you're probably not quite right to say that UNEsco has designated it as anything because I don't think UNEsco can papers saying that it qualifies it would it would otherwise qualify as a world heritage is if it wasn't in international waters. I think, I think that's what they were saying. Yeah, I think something like that and I think I wouldn't attribute it necessarily to unesco the organization. I would say that authors of a paper that was published by UNEsco made that proposition, but it's not a proposition that really holds what illegally, you know, when we grant a contract for for sulfide exploration, the kind of licensing system that we use is a block system similar to oil and gas. The way that you find hydrothermal sulfide deposits is to effectively track back from active hydrothermal vents to go off the ridge access to look for the inactive events, which is where the mineral deposits are. So, you know, that's the geology of it effectively. So when you start to explore, you obviously start to explore from a big area and then you gradually go down from a big area to a small area, which is the area where your commercially viable mineral resources are found. So it's not unnatural and it's not abnormal in any way I think for an explorer to start off from the active events and then work away to look around the whole area and find if there's any commercially viable deposits. So in granting an exploration to contract to Poland or to anybody else, again, all we are doing is giving them the exclusive right in that area to study the mineralogy. Uh and at the same time to carry out the environmental studies that I mentioned a moment ago. So uh you know this is good for science. This is not this is not supposing in any way that anyone is ever going to mine the last city. I mean it's first of all, it's absolutely unlikely that the last city itself has any mineral resources. So why would anybody mind it to tie up the scientific side of this thing? You mentioned it before? But apparently that you have now launched this United Nations Deep sea global database. So I guess any issues anybody has with anything to do with the Sisi said or lost city, they can then just be directed to this database. Maybe you can describe it better. But presumably that's a resource that people can go to to at least see what's being done and make informed decisions based on data. Right, Well, we call it deep data, that's the name of our database. And yes, all exploration data goes into deep data now, some of it is commercial in confidence, which is primarily the data about mineral deposits, some commercial deposits, but all the environmental data is freely available. So, yes, what we're, what we're aiming to do is because it's a hugely important. Part of our mandate is to promote and encourage deep sea scientific research. And there's two parts of that mandate. 11 is, one is to get more scientific research done to promote it and encourage it and those who have the technology and the wherewithal and the know how and the money to do more of it. And, you know, this is one of the areas that I sometimes have issues with some of the ocean initiatives that are taking place, particularly the privately funded ocean initiatives, which which are great, you know, congratulations, five deeps and all this sort of thing. It's great stuff and fantastic, fantastic technology and obviously good science. But the problem is if this is this science is not shared and if the science is not, is not made available to the whole world, then uh you know, that raises raises a number of questions, a number of problems that I think really need to be addressed. Okay, the science is shared. Good, good. I hope it can be shared with esa's deep data. Yeah, probably not. So yeah, now the issue is is we acquired so much mapping data. It's taken a long time to we've got to go through and clean it all and process and quality control and quality assurance because it's now over 1.4 million square kilometers of deep sea floor we mapped in two years. So we would love to just hand it over in a brown envelope to Jeb Co two just put on the global repository. But it's not as easy as that because they don't do any of the post processing. We have to do it for free and then give it to them. We we have the same issue. And I think I think that's a super important point that you've raised is you know, we have similar detailed telemetry for the whole of the Sisi said, you know, uh again, going back to this moon analogy, the C. C. C. Is one of the most intensely studied areas of sea floor on the planet. And I think another point there, alan is that there is no finite point where you can say we will ever have enough data because we continue to learn more and more as we go along. And you know, this is off this often a point made by anti mining campaigner campaigners that you know, we need to do X amount of more research before we will reach a certain point when we'll know enough. Well, no, we won't. We'll we'll continue to learn all the time because that data collection process will never ever stop. So there's no threshold. Then there's no sort of written down threshold, either from the regulations or from the scientists coming to you. That says this is the level we need to be out before we can make an informed decision. Or is it still completely arbitrary? No, it's not arbitrary at all. There has to be there has to be an adequate baseline which has been defined by standards already. But the process is fairly standard that you will need to submit an environmental impact assessment and that will have to be evaluated and it will then be determined if that if the if the impact that is projected is acceptable and whether the mitigation measures that are proposed, this is not anything new in the world of environmental regulation, it's pretty much the same as regulating any other sort of activity offshore. So could you explain a little bit about the financial structure behind assuming that environmentally everything is agreed upon and extraction starts, what happens to the money once it's once, once the rock star coming out the ground? Well, obviously the financial issues is another big area of negotiation. And you can imagine that there's a very widely ranging views on the financial terms for those who really care about this stuff. You can go to our website and you can look at all the documents on this and you can look at studies that we've had done by mitt on the economic case for mining. And I won't go into the minutiae of that. But effectively the the concept of I. S. A. Is that whereas on land you would have to pay royalties to the government or the landowner in the deep sea, there is no landowner as such. It's all of us. So you have to pay royalties to the ECE. Uh And those royalties need to be. I think I think the actual legal provision is something like they must not unduly advantage or disadvantage. Deep sea miners compared to land based miners, sort of in that in that ballpark once we get those world is then yes they are to be shared and they're to be shared for the benefit primarily of developing countries or in such a way as to favour developing countries and particularly the least developed. So how do you get? There is a very difficult question that is not yet resolved. Convention itself doesn't give a lot of guidance on that. Apart from saying, we have to develop some equitable sharing criteria. So there are no other real alternatives then is but the scale you're talking about and the volume that we think society is going to require over the next three decades, there is no alternative to this. I wouldn't say there are no alternatives because obviously you can go on digging deeper and uh on land. Yes, this is puzzle. You know, we are not in any objective sense going to run out of minerals on land, but you will have to spend more to access them. The environmental burdens on land are as great, if not greater than those at sea. You're going to have to go into more remote locations and you're going to have to dig deeper and deeper with all the attendant environmental problems that that creates. So let's not pretend that mining on land is environmentally friendly, you know, it's not. So what would you what would you want to see in the next 5, 10 years? What's the what's the, you know, the next step for deep sea mining and in a positive way? Well, in a positive way, I think what we have to do is do we have to finalize the regulations around it, which as I say, well on the way, we were hoping to finalize in 2020, but unfortunately we got covid out of them, uh moving all our meetings online and having to defer some work until next year. I think we're in a great position to continue the process next year, but we've got to get the consensus, allow member states to sit together and negotiate and reach consensus. Hopefully that can be achieved. And then I think it will really shift the dynamic and the companies and countries that are interested can start to move ahead and start to do the testing that is necessary. So we can we can actually get an objective sense of what is the impact. Was one last thing. It's more of amusing than a question that I was thinking about this myself and you you mentioned earlier, we talked about this before on the podcast about scale and trying to picture all this and in the clarion clipper and obviously is massive. So I was I was sitting there thinking, well, I've seen computer graphics of these manganese nodule, minersfamilies, harvesters, you're thinking, okay, let's let's, for example, take europe, we'll pick on tom because he's listening and we'll put tom in a combine harvester and tell him to more europe along with that take and suddenly it becomes quite, quite difficult. I'm just trying to get a sense of if let's say tomorrow morning, it's a gold rush, anyone who wants to mind, go for it, Yeah. How many square kilometers can you even do in a, in a year? I don't know how long it would take. Yeah, this is this is a super important question and I think it's something you really covered well in your storytelling podcast, is that and again, I really feel this that most people in the world, except perhaps pacific Islanders who live in the ocean have no sense whatsoever of the scale and size of the ocean. The clarion cliff Burton zone is massive, right? Yeah, that's less than 1% of the whole ocean. If you were to mine the whole of the mineralized portion of the Clarion Cliff Burton zone, it would take you about 6500 years. There we go. We've got a number. So this is never going to happen. All right. And I know that was fascinating on that. No. Secretary General Michael Lodge, thank you very much. Thank you. It has been a pleasure talking to you. So There you go. That was Michael Lodge of the Esa. And it's funny to think that if the ice is responsible for 54 of the planet and mr largest head of that organization and he is responsible for more of the geographical area for planning than anybody else. And I forgot to ask him what his favorite party has ever been to was. We'll never know now. We'll never know. I don't have that opportunity is gone anyway. So there's a couple of points that were raised in that interview that I think we need to clarify because it's been a couple of days since we did. It was a few things that we've been thinking about it. I just want to clarify the point about the Lost City in the unesco World Heritage Qualifying status. And the Lost City is a totally unique low temperature alkaline vent. It's not a black smokers. I wrongly said in interview, apologies for that, but it is of paramount scientific interest because it's thought that it may be one of the only analog to currently on earth today that represents conditions of the primary colours and so on. So it is a really unique site. And it's not like other hydrothermal vents regarding this world heritage status unesco report, but 44 entitled World Heritage in the High Seas, an idea whose time has come was in fact published in 2016 by unesco and I. U. C. N. And by authors from both. So if you can you can easily get on the internet. Lost cities talked about on page 32 explains in some detail, well I lost City qualifies as a potentially outstanding universal value in the high seas because it meets four of the criteria for heritage justification. So anyway, so that's just a misunderstanding somewhere down the line. But that was was put out two years before Fallen was granted the exploration licence. So you go, I was right about that, but wrong about the black smoker. Other points are on the data sharing uh organizations like revolution smells an institute even jam step for example, they all have open data policies. The reason why five Deeps does not have an open data policy is because we have no infrastructure whatsoever. That's why we are slowly but surely putting all our data out on other people's repositories because five Deeps was not a scientific expedition and it's not linked to an institute is slippery. The one private persons quest to dive places and the science has been done on the back of that and we don't have a budget or or any people to do that. So that's why it's taking a long time. Other things I thought were interesting was things about environmental impact from exploration activities. And I think declining clipping zone is so huge that environmental impact from exploration alone is probably relatively small. But I do think that any impacts around vents are probably going to be much higher because these are really small in terms of area, these are island communities that live there and I think they will be highly vulnerable to disturbance from human activities including science. I mean, let's not forget that scientists do roam around these places more than anybody and and regularly take samples from them. So, you know, that's that's an important point as well. I haven't heard from both Jeff and Michael. It's interesting to go back to this idea of scale and this mining effort and I think it's perhaps highlights some of the uncertainties that might be upon us because Michael reckoned one harvester would take 6.5 1000 years to The harvest. The clarion corrupt. And Jeff had an estimate of things 15,000 km per year, which would take something like 300 years to do. It all depends on how many machines you have and and so on. So nobody really knows. But I think whatever the true number is to take home from that whole conversation is that we need to remember that these nodules took millions of years to form and they will take millions of years to come back again. So whatever, whatever that big number might be, it's not gonna be small relative to the time.
professional. We brought in Professor Jeff Drazen, who's from the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at mono. Uh He's a veteran of the big US institutes such as scripts and barry. He's a fish enthusiast at home and at work in particular. The deep sea flavored fish spends a lot of time at sea. We worked with him a lot. He's won awards for his teaching and his all round, lovely, nice guy. He's our favorite Jeff of all Time, bizarrely, he hasn't aged a day in 17 years. But anyway, so Jeff joins us now from Hawaii. How are you alan? Good, good, good. So today I want to talk about Over the last say, I would say 10 years is this whole idea of deep sea mining, of moving quite an agricultural filling industry into the war, which is then in the backyard of where guys like you've been doing the science for years and years and years and years. First of all, for those who don't know what deep sea mining is. Can you just explain briefly what scale of what they're after, what, how they, how they intend to operate and what are sure deep sea mining has been an idea that has been around for many decades. But recently there's been resurging interest in deep sea mining. There are minerals on the sea floor such as cobalt and nickel and copper, rare earth elements, even gold, silver, depending on where in the deep ocean you're looking. And we now have over 7.5 billion people on this planet and the need for metals is very high. Probably what's pushing forward the latest interest in deep sea mining more than just a general need for metals though is that we are trying to remove to a renewable energy economy and that means we need batteries, we need batteries to store power generated from wind and solar. And we have a huge need for that. Those batteries are currently made out of metals. And so there is a huge drive to seek these metals on the sea floor. There are three main kinds of metal deposits in the deep ocean. The first is at hydrothermal vents. This is where you have plates converging or splitting apart on the ocean floor and you have magma that's super that percolates through rock, super heats when it hits magma deep in the rock and drives a lot of minerals out of that rock. They dissolve and they go shooting back into as events of water spewing into the ocean. And and when that superheated and now mineral laden water hits the cold ocean. You get what are called black smokers or white smokers. All of those minerals precipitate. They all they all come out of solution and they dropped to the bottom, let's create metal deposits and they're rich in zinc and silver and gold. You also have metals that simply glom onto hard surfaces over millions of years in the ocean. And so there are underwater mountains. And they have their of course made out of rock most, not all exclusively of course, but largely and over millions of years, metals like manganese and cobalt have precipitated onto these rocks and created a film a crust. And those crusts have the cobalt, manganese, some of which we need for these batteries and other uses. So that's we've got vents, we've got seamounts. And then the last major deposit is that in areas of the abyssal plains, these are the very open, deepest areas of the ocean. And in certain places on these abyssal plains in the ocean, This is 3,006,000 m deep. There are metals that precipitate out of the water sometimes around a sharp tooth. And they create these potato sized nodule. Als they almost look like rocks. But of course they haven't forms, they're not geologically anything like Iraq. They're kind of like those seamount crusts and they just, they're layers that have grown over millions of years that are rich in copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese and a lot of those metals are used in batteries and they cover the sea floor. There are two main mining areas right near Hawaii where I work to our south and all the way across towards Central America is the Clarion Cliff Burton Zone And this zone is covered with these manganese nodules. And there are currently 16 licenses to explore these metal resources that were issued by the International Seabed Authority. This is the international, by all of this is on the high seas or a lot of it is. And so they, it's an international body. If you go to our west off of Hawaii, you have the prime crust zone which is a region of the pacific basin where there are a host of seamounts. There are many, many million 100 million years old. So they have these very thick crusts of cobalt on them. And so there are several mining claims or exploration claims at this stage in that area as well. So all done and told, I think this is something most people don't realize, but there are over a million and a half square kilometers of sea floor that are under license to be explored for mining. It's an enormous area, just that manganese nodule area called the Clarion clippard in zone that I just mentioned. If you were to take that region and superimpose it on the Continental United States, it would stretch from California all the way to New England. It's immense. So mining of these resources could be one of the largest anthropogenic alterations to the surface of our planet that we engage in. So, what you got feeling in terms of where this industry is right now, I mean, when we talk about The size of those licensed areas, realistically, how much could the industry actually mine, let's say over a period of 10 years, do you think it's in a situation where we're looking at a mass scale destruction of huge tens of thousands of square miles of sea floor? Or is it something that's going to happen over much longer timescales? The estimates vary. It depends on a huge number of factors. And so any number I give here, you know, you have to realize there's a lot of error around it. We anticipate if we start at the small scale where we have a little bit more certainty, an individual mining company mining manganese nodules out on the abyssal sea floor, they're going to have to invest billions of dollars in the infrastructure ships, the robotic vehicles to operate on the sea floor. These are big scale operations and they're probably to be able to make their money back are going to need to mind. We estimate something between 306 100 square kilometres of sea floor per year. Wow, that's a lot of sea floor. Yeah, you had that up over 15 years. This is just one contractor, just one company. And that's, you know, you rapidly approach, you know, something in the neighborhood of potentially 15,000 square kilometres in 10 years. That's the direct impact. When we when we look at it from the mining perspective, you know, that yields quite a lot of minimal resource. But you have to realize that the indirect effects of this mining, they expand well beyond the footprint that I just talked about because these mining vehicles, what they're, what the current plans are Keep in mind. Many of the plans of the companies are confidential etc and the details are lacking. But all companies envision some kind of collector vehicle that will drive across the sea floor and it's going to scoop up the top layer of mud and all of these modules down to a depth of about 10 cm or so. And it's going to do this in a track that is Probably five m or more wide. All of those modules and the mud hopefully will be some separation between the modules and the mud at the sea floor. But a lot of material will be shot up A pipe probably hydraulically lifted, meaning just shot up with sea water to the surface. Going to go 4,000 5000 m up to a ship where the or will need to be separated from all of the mud and the seawater. So two things are going to happen. One is this vehicle drives across the sea floor, there's going to be damaged from the direct impact. That's going to kill the fauna. It's going to remove the na jewels, which actually support about half of the big megafauna that live on the sea floor, corals. Sea nominees of barnacles, things of this nature, but there's also going to be a big cloud of mud behind the vehicle. The mud on the deep sea floor is really fine clay. These areas are hundreds to thousands of miles away from land. This is very fine material that has sifted down to the bottom. And so when it gets spewed back up into the water column, it's going to take a while before it settles again and that cloud of mud is going to drop over the sea floor and smother organisms. These organisms normally only experience mud settling down at a rate of a few millimeters in 1000 years. These are some of the clearest ocean waters in the world in the clarion clipper in zone. So this is going to be potentially a very large impact. It expands the area of effect beyond that 3 to 600 square kilometers per year figure that I gave you maybe doubles it or more. But all of that mud, they got carried up to the surface with the na jewels there. They have to return that mud and seawater back into the ocean. Well, right now, it's a little ambiguous as to where that's going to occur. Some contractors say they'll take it back down to the sea floor, so you'll have a bigger cloud of mud down there, but others may discharge this muddy sea water somewhere below 200 m, hopefully below at least 1000 m, if not more, but they're going to put it into the water column and that's going to have effects that will expand the range of impacts that mining will have in the ocean. We don't know how large those clouds of mud will be and how long they will persist. But it's anticipated that these mining operations will occur most days out of the year. So there's there's the potential to create a very large impacts beyond the direct impact of the direct footprint of mining. Also, we're thinking about how long it took for those manganese nodule to actually form. Considering you can remove them all and essentially a matter of months, the recovery time is going to be a lot of million years. Yeah, millions of years. I mean the animals won't have evolved fast enough to deal with the absence of this habitat. We've done studies in the Eastern Sea Sesay craig smith and a host of other european scientists, dan jones and others. There's too many to name. But everybody finds that the diversity of everything microbes up to fish in this portion of the ocean is really, really high. And that's partly because you have the regular mud that you often find on the on the sea floor. And then you've got all these modules and all those modules provide all kinds of little different habitats for, you know, the host of this great diversity of life and mining, it is going to destroy all that. It's really seems to be a biodiversity hotspot. So, with that, with that in mind, I mean, what's your feeling about where industry and science on almost collide? I mean, it's easy to say we should never deep sea mine by, you know, I'm aware that they are realities to world economics. And as you say, there are seven billion people on the planet. And, you know, it's a case of some people thinking mining should not take place. Other people thinking, hell yeah, shoes. And but I'd imagine most people will probably fall into some sort of middle ground where it's probably preferred that it's acknowledged that it needs to happen, but it's preferred that it's managed in some way rather than this is the most stupid thing I've ever heard. We should never do this. What's your feeling on that? You think that's realistic to think that deep sea mining shouldn't happen? Or is it just a matter of finding some compromise in there somewhere? I think it is realistic that the deep sea mining does not have to happen. I do think that there is a huge sector industrial sector that thinks that it should happen. There's a lot of people in the middle that, as you say, I think that you know, maybe it should proceed, but we need to have a single contractor proceed first and really fully evaluate this. This portion of the ocean is very poorly known. And so evaluating the actual magnitude of the impact is very difficult. We don't have hard numbers. We know it's going to be very bad, but we just don't know which areas. But I think probably the most important part of the question you just asked is we talk about some people think this, lots of other people think that this is all portions of a very small group of people in general. The public is unaware of what deep sea mining is. And so the public hasn't weighed in. The vast majority of people don't have an opinion because I don't even know what deep sea mining is always interesting is a few years ago, I was teaching undergrad level and I introduced deep sea mining is part of the deep sea course, and before, before we got into any serious discussions with the class, I said, you know, this is what people are planning on doing this, this is what's going to happen, it's going to be devastating, it's going to be awful. Before I say anything else. I said right, hands up, who thinks this is a really bad idea? Of course, you know, 100% of the class for their hands down. No, we're not doing this, this is terrible, this is rubbish. So how about we don't do that. Hypothetically, that then means we don't have lithium batteries for your for your smartphone or or rare earth elements for your touch screens or and and all these technologies, you know, if if no deep sea mining meant no smart electronics body thinking that, and I managed to convince pretty much all of them are the complete opposite with just a few sentences because suddenly realized, oh no, it's human, it's terrible, it's terrible. But I really need my smartphone. Uh when this moral and ethical dilemma of like I really want this, but I don't want it coming from there. And then you get into interesting conversation, he said, well, where else can you get this stuff from? You know, you're looking at recycling and repurposing, looking at terrestrial, unbelievably complicated and then you throw in the industry, you throw an environmentalist, you throw in the science, you throw in the politics, you throw into international relations, the world economy. And it's not something we're going to resolve tonight. No, it's not. But I will say this oftentimes it's posed as deep sea mining or horrible child labor in Africa because one of the main cobalt sources in the world is the Democratic Republic of Congo and they use child laborers. But there is there's a big resource there in Africa. A lot of the companies don't want to deal with that environment. They don't want to support those terrible labor practices and they don't want to deal with the uncertainty of working with less than stable governments and economies. But if you took the billions of dollars that one company is going to invest in ships and technology to mine on the deep sea floor and helped improve the situation in D. C. R. Even this problem goes away. I'm not a politician and I'm not a socio economist. It underlies the complexity of the situation. There are certainly companies that would have you believe the only alternative is to mind the deep sea floor. But that's not really true. I think one of the other positives you can take away from this at the moment is that regardless of what happens regardless of it ever happens on a small scale large scale or whatever. It's good and reassuring that there has been a lot of exploration and science and guys like yourself and others. You mentioned that we're going out there and doing it now. At least we've caught this one at the early stages. Which I think is reassuring. So as it goes forward it's going forward in parallel, regardless of which direction it goes. The industry and science are hopefully moving together. And not a case of an industry is just spent 20 years mining the deep sea and somebody's turned around and went, actually, I don't think that's such a good idea. So, I mean, Yeah, I do. And you're, you're completely right. So much of the time, science has to play catch up with the industry. This is so common in fishing deep sea fishing. Right? You know, back in the 1980s, they discover this wonderful fish orange roughy off the coast of New Zealand and they start to fish it. They fish it for a couple of years before the fisheries scientists go, hey, wait a minute. What the hell is this new species? By the time they figured out that orange roughy lives to 150 years, doesn't reproduce until it's 20 or 30, all the stocks were gone. They weren't gone, but they had been reduced to a ghost of their former size in this deep sea mining case. If we continue to do a lot of research, we're going to have some informed risk management and that that is a really good thing. But that's how I work out. Mining is never going to happen. Oh, tom and I inadvertently found the manganese nodule field in the deep sea two years ago. We're not telling anyone where it is, Honestly good uniform, right smack bang in the middle of the ocean. There Is one, it was.
deep sea mining something we're gonna talk about quite a lot of this episode. We've even got two guests this time. Not one but two. That's because deep sea Mini is a big subject and we're not going to delve too deep into it because you could probably do an entire podcast on deep sea mining alone. It has all sorts of elements to which are both interesting, fascinating, encouraging tragic every every color of the rainbow. To be honest. For those unfamiliar with deep sea mining, it's a it's where large areas of poly metallic modules are active for extinct hydrothermal vents create these for called massive sulphide deposits. And these contain lots of interesting and particularly valuable metals such as silver, gold and copper, manganese, cobalt, zinc. All these metals that we need as a civilization to satisfy a rising demand and technology. That's the bottom line is we need stuff and their stuff on the sea floor. The problem is to get the stuff on the sea floor, we destroy the sea floor. And that's where there's a lot of this contentiousness comes from. So they're basically in a nutshell, there are three different types of, of mining, which I'm going to use Tomlin lee as a beautiful assistant to demonstrate this through a series of analogies. So the first is sucking up Paula metallic modules, or let's call them manganese nodules from abyssal plains. Right, So manganese nodules are basically fist sized black, what looked like rocks just lying on the sea floor and he's highly valuable. So the process of that is if you imagine Tom has been in the supermarket and he's just bought two big bags of vegan potatoes and big paper bags and he's walking out into the rain on a wet Newcastle afternoon and the rain gets to his paper bag and all these vegan potatoes end up strong across the car park. If I happen to be coming along in my little street cleaning vehicles in, gingerly suck them all up in my little machine, that's essentially what they're doing there, except it's probably 1000 times more aggressive than that, so lots of little balls, lots of questions about that, don't worry about it, Just move on tom just okay, alright, another another one, be like stripping cobalt cross from siemens seamounts or the thousands of seamounts, tens of thousands of siemens, A lot of them have got high cobalt concentrations on them. So the way to do that is if you imagine I was doing a an art project in my art yogurt and I needed some metal and I went into Tom's house and just started ripping there, the exterior off of his Austin Allegro, uh took them, took them back to my house to build my art and my art that would be analogous to see mountain cobalt mining right? Alright, tom That sounds about right, I give up. Yeah, sure, yeah, extracting Paula metallic sulfides from hydrothermal vents, This little bit of forestry, hydrothermal vents for big tall things, I guess, you can go and take rocks around it, but so it's basically, if I always wanted to build something that would go around Tom says, and just cut the trees down and take them basically in a nutshell. It's all about potatoes and legros and trees. This is why we need someone else to explain deep sea mining and we'll get to that in a minute. An important point is that many sea floor minerals are in great demand for use and things like smartphones, supercomputers, electric cars, solar panels, wind farms and all sorts of other new technologies. And cobalt, for instance, is branded as the world's primary technology metal and it's an element increasingly needed in the production of lithium ion batteries to power technologies like smartphones and electric cars. Now going back to the news, it was, it was only last week I think that Boris johnson came out with this plan that put a ban on new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 23 everything's got to go to electric. That's great news for greenhouse gases and air pollution and everything else. But then what it does do is say, right, we need a lot of cobalt where we're gonna get that from the deep sea mining raises questions about environmental impact. Obviously when you remove the sea floor, the greatest environmental impact is probably the fact that sea floor is not there anymore. And that can be devastating if you live on the sea floor again, that's why we need to bring someone else into explain this in better detail. But we're looking at Areas which can be as deep as 5000 m, you know, really large scale disruption of ecosystems. We don't entirely understand. I mean, some of these things that it goes back to this whole concept of human scale that we talked about before, like there are some places in the Pacific certainly, which are earmarked for mining, which are just absolutely massive. Many scientists have argued that seabed mining should just not be permitted or at best cautiously permit.
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