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Ground below their watery feet

Ground below their watery feet
Deep inside the ocean is a world as vibrant and rich as the one outside. There are mountain ranges, ridges, forests, seamounts, volcanoes and a unique ecology that defies common knowledge. For example, life here thrives without sunlight. This barely explored territory is also believed to hold vast quantities of precious metals and minerals that can sustain the modern world for centuries.

So when the International Seabed Authority (ISA) issued seven new licences in the last week of July to explore for the riches that lie on the floors of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, it sent ripples across the world. The UN body regulates exploitation of the ocean floor beyond 370-kilometre territorial limits to prevent a free-for-all. Several governments and the mining industry who have their eyes on the underwater riches hailed the announcement, while scientists and environmentalists raised concerns about venturing into this unknown territory.

Both state-owned and government-sponsored companies from India, France, Russia, Germany, China, Singapore and the UK had sought permission for minerals prospecting in the high seas. Four licences have been granted for the Pacific Ocean—the Clarion Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico and the Magellan Seamount in the northwest Pacific. Two licences are for the Indian Ocean Ridge, while one for Rio Grande Rise in the southern Atlantic. These are significant chunks of seabed. One UK Seabed Resources, an English subsidiary of the US defence giant Lockheed Martin, has secured exploration rights to an area larger than the entire UK. By now the ISA has opened up a vast 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed—one-third the size of India—for exploration of mineral deposits under 26 licences issued since 2001.

 ‘We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining,’ says Michael Lodge of ISA. The vast repository of minerals, including the precious cobalt, zinc, manganese and rare earth materials that are needed for smart phones, laptops and hybrid cars, are present in three forms of ore—polymetallic manganese nodules that remain strewn across the ocean floor; cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover the seamounts; and massive polymetallic sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents (see map). These vents are cracks in volcanic areas of the ocean floor through which seeps iron- and sulphur-rich magma. As these minerals meet cold bottom water, they precipitate, creating high-grade deposits. Typically, an ore from seabed deposit is seven times enriched with minerals than that mined from land. This beguiles governments who are fast running out of reserves on land.

With the new licence India will start looking for polymetallic sulphides that are rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver in the Indian Ocean Basin. Similarly, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Brazil’s Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais will explore for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the Magellan and the Rio Grande Rise seamounts. At least 20 countries have been carrying out exploration activities since 2001. Deep-sea mining is witnessing a fast revival after a lull of almost 40 years. The possibility of harvesting the deep seabed for limitless supplies of minerals has been known since the 1860s. The first attempt to mine the seabed was, however, made a century later.

The 1970s saw a frenzy of exploration activities. Towards the end of that decade, oceanographers discovered the mineral-rich volcanic vents and the UN adopted regulations governing international seabed. But the euphoria did not last long. Bringing the resources to the surface did not prove economic. A glut in the world market due to relatively easy access to minerals in the developing world took the fizz out of deep sea mining projects. Technological advances in the past four decades, particularly by the oil and gas industry that delves deeper into the sea in search of reservoirs, have made the operation feasible. Increasing demand for metals, particularly rare earth materials, at a time when reserves are dwindling has caused metal prices to rise.

According to the World Trade Organisation, the price of several non-energy materials increased annually by about 15 per cent between 2000 and 2010, primarily due to consumer demand in emerging economies like India and Brazil. This is making the cost of retrieving minerals from extreme depths appear lucrative to companies. Mining is expected to begin in 2017 after the first phase of 15-year exploration agreements come to an end in 2016. With all probabilities, Clarion-Clipperton Zone will be the first to be mined for polymetallic nodules. This is where maximum exploration activities are going on. While explorations sponsored by Russia, China, Japan and France will come to an end in a couple of years, Tonga, Nauru, Belgium, Germany and the UK will continue to explore the zone for several years.

India’s first agreement to explore polymetallic nodules in the international seabed of the Indian Ocean will come to an end in 2016, paving the way for mining. It was the first country to receive the status of a Pioneer Investor in August 1987. The ISA had then allocated it 150,000 sq km for carrying out various developmental activities for polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean Basin. Since 2002, it has explored 75,000 sq km for minerals and is developing technologies for mining the wealth. Some countries are also carrying out minerals prospecting in their territorial waters. Papua New Guinea has already asked Canadian company Nautilus Minerals to begin mining in its economic zones in the Bismarck Sea. The company will extract minerals from hydrothermal vents. Nautilus Minerals is also carrying out exploration activities for Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Sudan and Saudi Arabia are working together to start underwater mining in the Red Sea, believed to have one of the largest polymetallic sulphide deposits in the world.

According to the European Commission, such is the frenzy to mine the deep sea that 5 per cent of the world’s minerals, including rare cobalt and zinc, would come from the ocean floors by 2020. This would double by 2030. The global annual turnover of deep sea mining would touch €10 billion (US $13 billion) by 2030 virtually from zero now. This makes it one of the fastest businesses in contemporary time.

Ocean of life
Though there is no consolidated data on the mineral wealth underneath the high seas, studies suggest its richness. Consider this. Recently, scientists have stumbled upon a rare earth reserve in the Japan side of the Pacific Ocean, which is estimated to hold 80 billion tonnes of the material. Even at a concentration of 0.2 per cent, one square kilometre of ocean floor might yield one-fifth of the world’s annual consumption of rare earth minerals. Scientists have also identified 350 hydrothermal vents, known for polymetallic sulphides. Such vents are located at every 100 km along the 60,000 km mid-oceanic ridge system that encircles the globe, according to ISA. Similarly, there are 100,000 seamounts taller than a kilometre. They are potential cobalt crusts.

Polymetallic manganese nodules, which can range in size from that of a potato to a dining table, are available in plenty. According to an ISA estimate, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone holds 62 billion tonnes of these nodules, sufficient to yield 17,500 million tonnes of manganese, 761 million tonnes of nickel, 669 million tonnes of copper and 134 million tonnes of cobalt. At the present market rate, metals extracted from a tonne of these nodules can fetch over US $1,000.

In the Indian Ocean, says the country’s National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), these nodules are strewn across 10-18 million sq km of ocean floor. About 380 million tonnes of nodules are present in the licensed exploration area of 150,000 sq km. These include 92.60 million tonnes of manganese. Minerals like cobalt, nickel and copper are present in the concentrations of 0.56, 4.70 and 4.30 million tonnes. These metals are not available on the country’s land. NIOT is developing technologies for extracting these minerals from deep sea and has set up processing plants at the cost of US $135 million.    Down to earth

Richard Mahapatra &  Anupam Chakravartty

Richard Mahapatra & Anupam Chakravartty

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