The mining of deep-sea hydrothermal vents for gold, copper, and other precious metals, is imminent. Over the last seven years I’ve worked with industry, academia, and international regulatory agencies to help craft guidelines for conducting environmental impact studies and assess the connectivity and resilience of deep-sea ecosystems. Deep-sea mining, particularly at hydrothermal vents, is a complicated endeavor. As an ecologist and environmentalist, I’d like to see all deep-sea ecosystems receive extraordinary levels of protection. As a pragmatist and someone who recognizes that access to technology is a human right, I realize that demand for essential resources like copper, cobalt, and rare earth elements is only going to increase.
Mining a deep-sea hydrothermal vent presents a conundrum. Across the world, vents vary in their longevity and proximity to each other. A fast spreading center like those found in western Pacific back-arc basins, can have numerous, densely packed vents that persist for tens of years. In contrast, ultra-slow spreading centers, like the central Indian Ridge, may have a few, sparsely distributed vents that remain active for centuries. The sustainability of deep-sea mining is completely dependent on the type of vents being mined. Vents in slow spreading centers may never recover from any anthropogenic impact, while those in fast spreading centers could be extremely resilient to the disturbance caused by mining.