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.
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.
[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Good afternoon and thank you all for
coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about
what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like
because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary
shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.
This is the Area. Areas Beyond National
Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the
portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust
by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of
Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of
the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures
intend to operate.
[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]
I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.
“When the RV Knorr set sail for the Galapagos Rift in 1977, the geologists aboard eagerly anticipated observing a deep-sea hydrothermal vent field for the first time. What they did not expect to find was life—abundant and unlike anything ever seen before. A series of dives aboard the HOV Alvin during that expedition revealed not only deep-sea hydrothermal vents but fields of clams and the towering, bright red tubeworms that would become icons of the deep sea. So unexpected was the discovery of these vibrant ecosystems that the ship carried no biological preservatives. The first specimens from the vent field that would soon be named “Garden of Eden” were fixed in vodka from the scientists’ private reserves.”
In the forty years since that first discovery, hundreds of research expedition ventured into the deep oceans to study and understand the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In doing so, they discovered thousands of new species, unraveled the secrets of chemosynthesis, and fundamentally altered our understanding of what it means to be alive on this planet. Now, as deep-sea mining crawls slowly towards production, we must transform those discoveries into conservation and management principles to safeguard the diversity and resilience of life in the deep sea.
Though research at hydrothermal vents looms large in the disciplines of deep-sea science, relative to almost any terrestrial system, they are practically unexplored. Over the last 2 years, Drs. Andrew Thaler and Diva Amon have poured through every available cruise report that made a biological observation at the deep-sea hydrothermal vent to assess how disproportionate research effort shapes or perception of hydrothermal vent ecosystems and impacts how we make management decisions in the wake of a new form of anthropogenic disturbance.
In 2001, on an expedition to hydrothermal vent fields in the Indian Ocean, researchers made a bizarre discovery. Clustered in small aggregations around the base of a black smoker was an unusual snail, seemingly clad in a suit of armor. Rather than a single, hard, calcareous structure, the snail’s operculum was covered in a series of tough plates. On recovery to the surface, those plates, as well as the snail’s heavy shell, began to rust. This was an Iron Snail.
You can buy a 5-lb bag of polymetallic nodules from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone on Amazon, right now.
Depending on your vantage point and how long you’ve participated
in the deep-sea mining community, this will either come as a huge surprise or be
completely unexceptional. Prior to the formation of the International Seabed
Authority, there were no international rules governing the extraction of
seafloor resources from the high seas. Multiple nations as well as private companies
were engaged in exploration to assess the economic viability of extracting
polymetallic nodules and tons of material was recovery from the seafloor for
research and analysis. Some of that material almost certainly passed into