The ocean has deep secrets. It is a world as vibrant as the one outside. There is a unique ecology that defies common knowledge and often perplexes scientists. 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 it is not surprising that countries are now vying with each other to lay claim on what lies deep under. Exploration offers the prospect of finding huge amounts of previously untapped resources. 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. Till date, only 5% of the deep-sea floor, which covers about 60% of the earth’s surface, has been properly explored. Light penetrates only the top layers and the vast, deep oceans are pitch-black, with temperatures just a few degrees above freezing point.
Each time it is explored—by mini-submarines tethered to surface ships—strong lights pick out fragile structures and animals that have never been seen before. But countries are turning their eyes towards its minerals, potentially worth billions of pounds. There are significant deposits scattered over the plains of the ocean’s deepest abysses and encrusted on the rocky outcrops of underwater mountains. The vast repository of minerals, including the precious cobalt, zinc, manganese and rare earth materials are needed for smartphones, laptops and hybrid cars.
The exploration contracts are awarded by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an inter-governmental organisation established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to regulate deep-sea mining. 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. With the new licence, India will start looking for poly-metallic sulphides that are rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver in the Indian Ocean. Already, there have been significant advances in the technology required to discover, map and mine them, with robotic equipment built to operate at great depths.
They are also on active and extinct hydrothermal vents—the fissures in the planet’s surface from which hot water spouts. It has been made a possibility by population growth, economic growth and concerns over the supply and security of minerals on land. Copper, nickel and cobalt can all be found at high concentrations, in mineral deposits, as can the so-called ‘critical’ metals. These include the rare earth elements used in a range of new technologies such as memory chips, LEDs and batteries for electric vehicles. It is thought the mountains of the Pacific alone could contain about 22 times more tellurium—which is used in solar panels—than the known land-based reserves combined.
At present, there is no exploitation of deep-sea mineral resources, only exploration. The prospect of a race to the bottom of the ocean has alarmed scientists. The reason is deep seas are not marine deserts as thought. Just like the terrestrial environment, oceans are facing the conflict between development and environment—overfishing, industrial waste and plastic debris are just a few of the factors ailing them. What adds to the conflict is utter lack of knowledge of the deep sea environment. Strong opposition remains over concerns about the potential environmental impact.
As per Unclos, the state parties are responsible for ensuring environmental safeguards. A sponsoring state is not liable for environmental damages resulting from a contractor’s activities if the state has all domestic laws and regulations in place. But without a mechanism, environmentalists point out, it is difficult to monitor deep inside sea whether the safeguards are implemented. This needs a fresh set of laws particularly in developing countries, which are struggling with weak environmental regulations. At the same time, the ISA has to fix regulations, so that countries can adopt them.