The world’s smallest island Nauru has taken the lead and announced its decision to develop seabed resources. As per the proclamation, the country would start mining the deep sea by early 2023. The four-page declaration to extract the minerals from the depth of the ocean floors, though highly ambitious, has set in motion the desire to exploit seabed resources. The technology to harvest the much-in-demand polymetallic nodules is still in the developing stage, but the island nation seems determined to outpace the developed world which is still busy debating whether deep seabed mining is a solution or an unforeseen peril.
It is well known that deep seabed mining activities open an arena of opportunities for meeting the increasing needs of minerals and resources for future generations. It also poses threat to the environment and underwater aquatic and plant life. The deep seabed is one of the coldest and darkest places on the planet earth and very little of which has been actually traversed. With a diversified marine life and ecosystem remaining yet to be discovered, jumping into the practice of deep seabed mining could lead to the endangerment of the natural habitat that lies beneath the oceans. One of the most severe impacts of this activity perhaps could wipe out many species and many may perish which humankind is yet to discover.
In another remarkable development, the nickel prices in the global market suddenly shot up in the month of March 2022. There was widespread panic around the world adding to the unpredictability of the metal market. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the demand and supply of nickel have been heavily disrupted since Russia is a leading producer of high-quality nickel in the world, it produces nearly 10% of the global output of Nickel. Consequently, deep seabed mining has attracted the attention of the metal industry as mining the deep ocean bed could conceivably help meet the demand and supply of metals such as sulphide, manganese and polymetallic nodules.
The rising demand has pushed states to explore the seabed that is known to contain an abundance of metal resources. Therefore, the depths of the oceans are now the new destination and are being referred to as the ‘New Resource Frontier’. Although extraction of these minerals can help the global community to find alternative sources of fossil fuels with the potential to add to economic wealth, the impact on the environment merits serious attention.
Earlier this year, India announced the “Deep Ocean Mission”, which also includes deep seabed mining. The Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, the nodal department for the Deep Ocean Mission, has assured its commitment to maintaining a balance between the marine ecology and the resource security of the country. With the proper procedure followed, approval getting cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and a reasonable amount of budget were allotted by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of the country. The Mission is set to be implemented in phases over the next five years.
It merits mention that the scientists of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) have developed Varaha-1, a mining machine which would be crucial for all the plans that India has for its future activities in the deep sea Area.
While discussions about the activity of deep seabed mining are important as well as interesting, the risk of how it could be affecting the deep ocean floors, the flora and fauna, and the entire ecosystem require careful understanding. A systematic and comprehensive baseline study, high-quality environmental assessment along with the pre-planned testing of the machines to be used for mining, are some of the basic approaches that are critical before India commences deep sea mining activity.
Even though scientists, researchers, policymakers and environmentalists around the world are engrossed in developing and coming up with the best-suited modus operandi for carrying out the activities of the deep seabed mining, taking the first step towards actually engaging in the activity remains “mysterious” as the practice of deep sea mining is a tussle between the known and the unknown. Furthermore, the hunger for discovery and environmental and ecological dangers associated with deep-sea mining is unfathomed. Only time can tell if humankind is actually prepared for what lies ahead, beyond and beneath the oceans.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies.
Title Image Courtesy: The Telegraph