SOEST oceanographers receive $2.9M to assess impacts of deep-sea mining

Oceanographers from SOEST will lead a $2.87 million study to assess the ecosystem—from surface to seafloor—in an area of the Pacific Ocean, the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), proposed for deep-sea mining. Although previous studies have assessed potential impacts of deep-sea mining on seafloor ecosystems, this study is the first of its kind—a contract to determine a baseline of water column life and environmental and ecological processes in a region targeted for deep-sea extraction of metals such as copper, cobalt, zinc and manganese. These elements could eventually be used to produce batteries that power hybrid and electric vehicles. The funding for this project comes from DeepGreen Metals, Inc.

Ground-breaking in both scope and scale, the collaborative project will involve scientists from the SOEST, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), and Texas A&M University to study the biology, chemistry and physics of the entire water column — from seabed to surface — with remotely operated vehicles, sampling nets, sail drones and sophisticated sensors and moorings. In addition to this work, other science groups from around the world will establish the baseline conditions of seafloor ecosystems.

During the exploration phase of the deep sea mining industry, there are many outstanding questions on the potential environmental impacts of extraction-related activities. This comprehensive investigation will provide new insight into the ecosystem and possible impacts in the CCZ where numerous companies have been granted exploration rights by the International Seabed Authority.

Developing a baseline prior to initiating mining operations will identify which creatures, including microbes, jellies and fishes, are present in the ecosystem and what the baseline chemical inventories and ocean currents are prior to mining. The mining activity, which has not yet begun, will lift polymetallic nodules and surrounding sediments from the seafloor to a ship.  There, the ore will be separated from seawater and sediment that is then discharged back into the deep midwaters.  The research team will study the full ocean depth—from the seafloor where metals would be removed to the mid- and upper waters where sediment or dissolved chemicals will be discharged after nodules are removed.

“With this project, not only will we better understand the biological, chemical and physical oceanography of this specific location, but we also hope to develop a template for how these remote and dynamic portions of the deep ocean can be assessed and understood,” said Jeff Drazen, lead investigator on the project and Oceanography professor. “These types of studies can guide better decisions about how to use resources in the natural world.”

Other researchers also involved in this project are Glenn Carter, Sara Ferrón, Erica Goetze, Chris Measures, Brian Popp and Angelicque White from UH Mānoa; Mariko Hatta and Dhugal Lindsay from JAMSTEC; and Jessica Fitzsimmons from Texas A&M University.

For more on the planned impacts assessments, read the announcements from DeepGreen, Florida State University and Heriot-Watt University.