Sea turtles, in case you didn’t know, are pretty great. These giant marine reptiles have been chilling out in the ocean for over 100 million years, largely unchanged. But their evolutionary foray onto land along with the rest of the tetrapods (a move largely regarded as a mistake by most extant species) left them with one one critical vulnerability: they have to return to land to lay their eggs, and their hatchlings must survive a grueling march to the sea within minutes of emerging into the world.
To find their way back to the sea, sea turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests in the darkness and track light cues on the horizon, tracking the glow of starlight on waves. This becomes a huge problem when the beach is littered with the pollution of artificial lights, leading hatchlings away from the sea and towards streets, resorts, and beachfront bars. Light pollution is such a serious problem for sea turtle survival, that many municipalities which host turtle nesting beaches ban the use of superfluous lighting during nesting season.
Even with the intense research focus of the last twenty years, the deep sea is still almost entirely unexplored. New species are par for the course every time a fresh sample is recovered from the abyssal plain. The vast biodiversity of the deep seafloor is offset by a biomass deficit; the denizens of the deep sea, with a few notable exceptions, are few and far between, their size often limited by the paucity of food available to them. While giants like the Japanese King Crab or the Giant Deep-sea Isopod do occur, the vast majority of deep-sea species are relatively small.
The discovery of new species in the deep ocean is common, but the discovery of new giants in the deep sea is extremely rare.
In Japan, slickheads are commonly called sekitori iwashi–’massive sardines’. In recognition of its immense size, the researchers gave this most massive of massive sardines the common name yokozuna iwashi, after the title given to champion sumo wrestlers.
For the last decade, next-generation batteries have been the motivating force for the deep-sea mining industry. The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets to wean society off of fossil fuels has created huge demands for cobalt, nickel, and other metals necessary for high-density batteries. The demand has placed the green revolution in a position where we either need to unlock new reserves of these essential metals or fundamentally change how we make batteries.
While new battery technologies promise to reduce or eliminate the need for cobalt and other metals, unlocking the raw materials needed to energize electric vehicles isn’t the only mineral supply chain that can support commercial exploitation of the deep seafloor. The critical minerals found in polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts are being eyed for a variety of production needs, both commercial and strategic.
It was the manganese content of polymetallic nodules that originally caught the eye of prospectors in the 1960s and 1970s looking to exploit the mineral wealth of the deep oceans. Useful in the creation of steel and aluminum alloys, as well as a lead replacement in internal combustion engines, and as an electron acceptor in dry cell batteries, among other uses, the market for manganese crashed in the 1980s as more accessible sources came online and alternative technologies mitigated its demand. As the 12th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, global manganese production more than satisfied demand. Since 2000, manganese has been used as a substitute for copper and nickel in several US coins.
But manganese and cobalt aren’t the only metal that occurs in abundance beneath the waves. Gold, nickel, copper, and rare earth elements are also commonly cited as viable resources to justify exploitation in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Two metals that aren’t quite as frequently discussed but may, nevertheless, prove attractive to deep-sea mining contractors, are scandium and tellurium.
Scandium is a particularly challenging resource. It is used to produce strong, lightweight aluminium alloys for aerospace components, as well as, in much lower quantities, in the manufacture of some sporting equipment and firearms. Only a handful of scandium operations exist, producing 15 to 20 tons of scandium per year as a byproduct of other mineral extraction. This represents about half the global demand, creating a powerful incentive to develop new and novel scandium prospects.
Tellurium is one of the rarest metals on Earth. It is a technology-critical element–it is extremely important for the development of emerging technologies. Tellurium is used in the production of semiconductors, fiber optic cables, and solar panels, among other uses. It is produced as a byproduct in copper and lead refining and is produced primarily within the United States, Japan, Canada, and Peru. A little more than 100 tons of tellurium are produced every year.
Most critically, tellurium is a key component of cadmium telluride solar cells; efficient, thin film solar cells which are more efficient at absorbing light than silicon-based solar cells. Cadmium telluride solar panels are cheaper per kilowatt than conventional silicon panels and are lighter and easier to deploy. Tellurium occurs in abundance in mineral-rich crusts of the Tropic Seamount, a mountain in the middle of the Atlantic, just south of the Canary Islands. The deposits on this seamount, which is alternately claimed to fall within the EEZs of both Spain and Morocco, may be 50,000 times richer than all terrestrial sources.
Scandium and tellurium are the oddball metals in the push to mine the deep-sea. While elements like cobalt, nickel, and copper are needed in massive quantities to supply an exploding demand for next-generation batteries, neither scandium nor tellurium production is needed at that scale. Their relative rarity and the novelty of their occurrence in a few deposits on the seafloor creates a much different value proposition for these resources. As critical minerals with sparse terrestrial sources, barring a future surge in demand, accessing seafloor deposits represents a strategic, rather than purely commercial, decision.
Scandium demand, in particular, could finally mark the long-expected return of the United States to the deep-sea mining industry.
Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.
While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.
The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.
“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.”
With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”
While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims.
Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.
“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”
Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration.
You’ve probably seen in the media lately that there’s been a lot of coverage about whether sharks are being killed for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. With an awesome undergraduate co-author, I’ve tried to gather some facts about what is happening (or might happen) and what it means. You can read a preprint of that work here, or read on for a short FAQ in plain English.
When you live in the darkness of the abyss, finding a partner is hard and keeping a partner is even harder. Deep-sea anglerfish, one of the iconic ambassador species of the deep ocean, have found a novel solution to this problem–dwarf males are sexual parasites that latch onto the body of the much larger female anglerfish and then physically fuse to their partner, becoming permanently attached to the point where they share a circulatory and digestive system.
Parasitic dwarf males are uncommon, but not unheard of, throughout the animal kingdom. Osedax, the deep sea bone eating worm, also maintains a harem of dwarf males in a specialized chamber in their trunk. But few species, and no other vertebrates, go to quite the extremes of the anglerfish. And with good reason.
Vertebrate immune systems have a long shared history. The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is a suite of genes shared among all gnathostomes–the taxonomic group that contains all jawed vertebrates, from fish to fishermen. It creates the proteins which provide the foundation for the adaptive immune system, the core complex which allows bodies to tell self from no-self, detect pathogens, and reject non-self invaders. Suppressing the MHC seriously inhibits a vertebrate’s ability to fight off infection.
Incidentally, not all deep-sea anglerfish have parasitic dwarf males, and the species most often presented as a type specimen in the popular press, the humpback anglerfish Melanocetus johnsonii, is one of several that do not have permanently attached parasitic dwarf males. M. johnsonii males are free-swimming throughout their life, they’re just small and clingy.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/
Bioprospecting, the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds, industrial chemicals, and novel genes from natural systems, is frequently cited among the critical non-mineral commercial activities that yield value from the deep ocean. Isolating new chemicals or molecular processes from nature can provide substantial benefits to numerous industries. The value of products derived from marine genetic resources alone is valued at $50 billion while a single enzyme isolated from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent used in ethanol production has an annual economic impact of $150 million.
In contrast to other extractive processes, bioprospecting is driven by and dependent on biodiversity. The greater the diversity and novelty of an ecosystem, the greater the likelihood that new compounds exist within that community. Bioprospecting is also viewed as light extraction, compounds only need to be identified once–actual production happens synthetically in the lab–thus leaving ecosystems relatively undisturbed compared to more intensive industries.
Despite the promise and importance of bioprospecting, there is generally a relatively poor understanding of what the process of discovery entails. How do researchers go from sponges on the seafloor to new antiviral treatments?
Below you’ll find a document I’ve been thinking about for more than a decade. I teach marine science field skills to undergraduates and graduate students at Field School and the University of Miami, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe science and scientific learning in action. This is my best effort to distill the key principles I’ve learned about creating a healthy, supportive working environment. Starting the year, my students at Field School will all read and sign on to these principles before working with us.
It feels important to add that cultures are the product of choices and actions (or inaction). They don’t create themselves; they are created by the people within them. That means, sadly, that in every toxic organization there are people who choose, and benefit (or think they benefit) from that toxicity. The good news is that it also means we can choose something else. It’s not out of our hands.
I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about how to create
welcoming, supportive learning environments for all of my students. And no: I
don’t believe compassion and acceptance mean you have to sacrifice scientific rigor—in
fact, I think students learn and grow more in these settings.
If you are also engaged in looking for solutions to the systemic problems in how we train future marine scientists, please feel free to join me by sharing this, implementing it in your own teaching, or reaching out with suggestions for how it can be improved based on your knowledge and practice. If you are a student who is struggling with these issues and you need advice or a friendly ear, please know that you are not alone, and my inbox is always open to you.
Amidst all the hysteria surrounding the seemingly unstoppable COVID-19, we bring you a story of a fish without blood. In 1928 a biologist sampling off the coast of Antarctica pulled up an unusual fish. It was extremely pale (translucent in some parts), had large eyes and a long toothed snout, and somewhat resembled a crocodile (it was later named the “white crocodile fish). Unbeknownst at the time, but the biologist had just stumbled on a fish containing no red blood pigments (hemoglobin) and no red blood cells – he iron-rich protein such cells use to bind and ferry oxygen through the circulatory system from heart to lungs to tissues and back again. The fish was one of sixteen species of what is now commonly referred to as icefishes that comprise the family Channichthyidae, endemic around the Antarctic continent.
Scientists (and sci-fi fans) have to varying degrees been discussing the concept of suspended animation for years; the idea that the biological functions of the human body can somehow be put on “pause” for a prescribed period of time while preserving the physiological capabilities. If you’ve ever watched any sci-fi movie depicting interstellar travel you have probably seen some iteration of this concept as a way to get around the plot conundrum of the vastness of space and space travel times, relative to natural human aging and human life span. The basic principle of suspended animation already exists within the natural world, associated with the lethargic state of animals or plants that appear, over a period, to be dead but can then “wake-up” or prevail without suffering any apparent harm. This concept is often termed in different contexts: hibernation, dormancy, or anabiosis (this last terms refers to some aquatic invertebrates and plants in scarcity conditions). It is these real-world examples that likely inspire the human imagination of the possibilities for suspended human animation. The concept of suspended human animation is more commonly viewed through the lens of science fiction (and interstellar travel), however, the shift of this concept from scientific fiction to science reality has a more practical human application.