Countries Race to Mine the Bottom of the Sea for Modern Gold Rush

Hundreds of miles southeast of Hawaii in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a hidden treasure trove lying silently in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Here, beneath thousands of meters of water, lies a bounty of metals and minerals crucial for our modern existence and the future of clean energy.

There’s a race to extract these resources, and it entails environmental ethics, international law, and the future of our planet.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone

Discovered in the 1870s and gaining prominence recently, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) spans 5,000 kilometers across the central Pacific Ocean, with depths ranging from 4,000 to 5,500 meters.

This area is rich with potato-sized polymetallic nodules containing crucial metals like copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, and rare earth elements, essential for modern electronics and clean energy technologies. However, the CCZ is more than a resource; it’s a complex ecosystem with unique species adapted to extreme conditions.

The deep-sea mining industry aims to harvest these nodules using specialized technology, which could destroy the seabed habitat and its inhabitants. To protect biodiversity, the International Seabed Authority has designated nine Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) around the exploration license areas, safeguarding the full range of biodiversity and habitats in the region (ref).

The International Rush

In the 1960s and 70s, the world first turned its gaze to the ocean’s depths, with nations and companies exploring the potential of deep seabed minerals (ref). This early curiosity, however, simmered down due to economic and technological challenges.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that a resurgence in interest occurred, driven by technological advancements and an escalating demand for minerals critical for modern technology and renewable energy.

Today, under the oversight of the International Seabed Authority, over 28 contracts have been granted to a diverse group of entities, including public and private organizations from developed and developing nations.

These groups are now navigating the deep sea’s abyssal plains, each aspiring to pioneer extracting its rich, polymetallic treasures.

Yet, as this race intensifies, so does the debate over the environmental and ethical implications of exploiting these remote, uncharted territories.

Profit vs. Protection

Central to this deep-sea conundrum are two pivotal inquiries: Does the quest to mitigate climate change justify the potential for lasting harm to the ocean’s depths? Moreover, is it equitable for a few nations to capitalize on a collective natural bounty merely by their early arrival?

The United Nations, via the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is wrestling with these dilemmas, striving to strike a delicate equilibrium between the escalating demand for critical minerals essential for green technologies like EV batteries and wind turbines and the imperative to safeguard our shared marine legacy.

As the ISA deliberates regulations up to 2025 (ref), the fate of international waters and their hidden riches hangs in the balance, with formal discussions on environmental repercussions set to commence in 2024.

The Environmental Equation

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Image Credit: Sergio Barcelo/Shutterstock.

Opponents of deep-sea mining highlight the potentially catastrophic impact on biodiversity. The CCZ’s unique inhabitants, from sponges to mollusks, could be decimated by the sediment plumes and disruption caused by mining.

A 2020 study off Japan’s coast showed a significant decline in marine populations following similar disturbances. The question looms: Are we on the brink of destroying an ecosystem we barely understand?

A Race of a Different Kind

A parallel race is on as the world watches The Metals Company and others inch closer to mining. Research ships are frantically documenting the CCZ’s ecosystem, hoping to understand and perhaps mitigate the impending damage.

This isn’t just a story about mining; it’s about knowledge, preservation, and our choices for our planet’s future.

The Weight of Our Choices

Today’s decisions will ripple through generations. The race to the bottom of the ocean is more than a quest for resources; it’s a test of our values, foresight, and commitment to the earth.

The deep sea, with its silent, dark mysteries, holds the answers to our energy future and the health of our planet. What we choose to do next will define the fate of the CCZ, our global community, and the world we leave behind.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.