Deep-sea mining and digital technologies

The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) is committed to developing an open access database of relevant high quality research on all matters pertaining to the interface between digital technologies and the environment. We also share bibliographies of recent important literature that may be of use to the community of researchers and practitioners wishing to explore specific themes. These not only address direct linkages with digital technology, but also provide scientific background on important emerging themes.

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Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep seabed, the area of the seabed below 200m. Whilst there has been research on the deep seabed since the 1970s, there has been growing interest in recent years due to the depleting deposits from terrestrial sources of metals such as manganese, coupled with the increasing demand for the same metals in green technologies such as wind turbines. There is particular demand for many seabed minerals in the manufacturing of digital technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and batteries. In essence, all will require seafloor vehicles to crush and collect the material which will then be fed to the support vessel. However, as the deep sea remains understudied and poorly understood, there are many gaps in our knowledge about its biodiversity and ecosystems. This makes it difficult thoroughly to assess the potential impacts of deep-sea mining caused by increasing demands for minerals used in the digital technology sector and to put in place adequate safeguards to protect the marine environment.

As there are likely to be impacts beyond our current knowledge, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is operating a dual mandate of promoting the development of deep-sea minerals whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment. The first mining is likely to be focussed on extracting manganese nodules from the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean. Areas of this fracture zone that have been licensed for mining are home to a diversity of deep-sea xenophyophores, with a 2017 study finding 34 species new to science in the area. As xenophyophores are highly sensitive to human disturbances, deep-sea mining may have adverse effects on the group; further, as they play a keystone role in benthic ecosystems their removal could have greater ecological consequences. Research is being conducted in order to investigate more fully the potential impact of collecting these elements and to compare it to the extensively researched environmental and human impact of terrestrial mining, with the intention of mitigating these impacts through appropriate policies. 

Research resources

Childs, J. (2018) Extraction in Four Dimensions: Time, Space and the Emerging Geo(-)politics of Deep-Sea Mining, Geopolitics, 25(1), 189-213.

Clark, M.R., Durden, J.M. and Christiansen, S. (2020) Environmental Impact Assessments for deep-sea mining: Can we improve their future effectiveness?, Marine Policy, 114, 103363.

Figueiredo, C., Caetano, M., Mil-Homens, M., Tojeira, I, Xavier, J.R., Rosa, R. and Raimundi, J. (2021) Rare earth and trace elements in deep-sea sponges of the North Atlantic, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 166, 112217.

Heffernan, O. (2019) Deep-sea dilemma, Nature, 571, 464-469.

Kung, A., Scobodova, K., Lèbre, E., Valenta, R., Kemp, D. and Owen, J.R. (2021) Governing deep sea mining in the face of uncertainty, Journal of Environmental Management, 279, 111593.

Milinovic, J., Rodrigues, F.J.L., Barriga, F.J.A.S. and Murton, B.J. (2021) Ocean-Floor Sediments as a Resource of Rare Earth Elements: An Overview of Recently Studied Sites, Minerals, 11, 142.

Orcutt, B.N., Bradley, J.A., Brazelton, W.J., Estes, E.R., Goordial, J.M., Huber, J.A., Jones, R/M., Mahmoudi, N., Marlow, J.J., Murdock, S. and Pachiadaki, M. (2020) Impacts of deep-sea mining on microbial ecosystem services, Limnology and Oceanography, 65, 1489-1510.

Vonnahme, T. R., Molari, M., Janssen, F., Wenzhöfer, F., Haeckel, M., Titschack, J., and Boetius, A. (2020)
Effects of a deep-sea mining experiment on seafloor microbial communities and functions after
26 years
, Sci. Adv. 6, eaaz5922.

Contributions to this list of resources were provided by James Crabbe and Tim Unwin

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Updated 19th August 2021

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