Should we mine the seabed?

21st March 2013
Should we mine the seabed?

A British company’s plans to mine the Pacific Ocean seabed have split opinion after warnings that the project could damage marine ecosystems.

UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, last week revealed that it hopes to start extracting potato-sized lumps of rock, known as ‘polymetallic nodules’, from the sea floor. These are rich in metals such as manganese, nickel and copper – valuable resources that are in increasingly short supply up on dry land.

The firm has received a license from the United Nations to explore an area of ocean floor that’s over twice the size of Wales and 4km beneath the waves. It hopes to begin operations within the next five to six years.

Before doing so, though, it will have to show that its mining techniques won’t harm the environment. One possibility is that the harvesting machines could disturb the seabed, releasing plumes of sediments that choke marine creatures.

"The nodules are generally lying in sediment that is between 2-6in (5-15cm) thick that's been there undisturbed for millions of years,” said Michael Lodge, general counsel for the International Seabed Authority, to BBC News. “We simply don't know the recovery times or the distribution of species – there are lots of uncertainties."

But the chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin UK, Stephen Ball, is optimistic that the company can develop an environmentally friendly way of vacuuming the nodules off the ocean floor. Speaking to the BBC, he said that it would be “perfectly feasible to create a benign method to extract these minerals from extreme depths without disturbing the seabed."


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