From a global pandemic to information overload to out-of-control drug prices, 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic made a lot of bold predictions about 2021 that landed a bit too hard. Among the hits that landed hardest? The rise of containerized housing and a chaotic kludge of weird construction welded together in a way that doesn’t exactly scream stability and permanence.
The year is 2021. Can we put to rest the idea that a shipping container home is anything but an aesthetic choice?
For the past few days I, like many of you, have felt a variety of intense emotions. First and foremost I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of relief. No matter what happens next, Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States, and he and his enablers can no longer work to destroy so much of what we love and value (at least not as easily). We can start the hard work of fixing so many things that have been awful and growing worse every day. I’ve felt hope that we can start to make things better, and I’ve even felt a little bit of joy at the noteworthy progress that’s already been made. All of this was expected, but one thing I haven’t expected is how much of a particular sensation I’m feeling, and have seen other people report feeling as well. For some of my friends it was a totally unfamiliar sensation, but as a marine scientist I recognized it immediately: many of us are basically experiencing landsickness, also called “dock rock” or “mal de debarquement syndrome”.
In forty-eight hours, and amidst the largest peacetime deployment of a military force in any nation’s capitol, President Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. Biden will inherit a civil service bureaucracy that has been deconstructed by the twice-impeached President Trump. To build back a federal government that has been decimated and demoralized, President-Elect Biden has begun rolling out nominees for critical agencies throughout the federal government. And though these appointments have been met will enthusiasm from the environmental and scientific community, a nagging question lingers among America’s Ocean Stakeholders:
Donald F. Trump hates sharks. We learned that in 2013, when, during an entirely uncontroversial discussion about shark conservation foundations on Twitter, the would-be President of the United States of America blocked a small cohort of marine scientists.
Gracing David Shiffman and myself with a timeline blissfully free of his insufferable Tweets for eight years was the only good thing he has ever done for the ocean.
Initially, it appeared as though Trump’s war on the oceans would take a backseat to his other social, judicial, and environmental atrocities. Though a troubling selection for a host of reasons, Wilbur Ross’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce was seen as a relatively non-threatening move. His letter to NOAA staff, reassuring them that his department would continue to follow best-available science, was met with praise. His initial leadership appointments received bipartisan support.
It is clear now in hindsight, that that initial optimism was intensely naïve.
This is the winter of finding as many good, educational projects to keep our kids as occupied as possible. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a stack of assorted electronics in various stages of disrepair, which is great for your hardware hacking dads and moms, but kids need projects with a little more structure and, especially for the younger ones, a lot less soldering.
All of these projects were built with the help of my kiddo (age four), require no soldering or electronics skills to start, involve just enough coding to stay interesting, and use Adafruit’s CircuitPython ecosystem, which is fairly easy to learn. Adafruit does a great job compiling detailed instruction for every project. These can all be completed in a lazy afternoon.
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.
Last night, the President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacists terrorist group Proud Boys, called for illegal election interference from his supporters, and threw a variety of tantrums related to his horrifically terrible tenure. Though Climate Change made a small appearance at the debate, unsurprisingly, ocean policy issued were sidelined so that POTUS would have enough time to mock a dead soldier.
Tear gas is bad for fish. Surprising no one, if you unlawfully unload tons of tear gas into a peaceful crowd of protestors in order to create chaos as a precedent for state violence, that tear gas will eventually find its way into drains and all drains lead to the ocean. And that is bad news for marine life.