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Who Can Mine the Deep-Sea Floor?

09/01/2023
  • 1 Deep sea mining
    Coral reefs grow in the waters near Indonesia. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold, and rare-earth elements used to manufacture high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the seafloor. (AP/Dita Alangkara)
  • 2 Deep sea mining
    Phosphate mining equipment stands on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru. (Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo vis AP)
  • 3 Deep sea mining
    An illustration shows a mining robot picking up metals from the ocean floor. (Business Wire via AP)
  • 4 Deep sea mining
    A sea turtle swims over corals off the coast of Queensland in eastern Australia. Careless mining can harm ocean creatures including corals and sponges. (AP/Sam McNeil)
  • 1 Deep sea mining
  • 2 Deep sea mining
  • 3 Deep sea mining
  • 4 Deep sea mining

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Some of the world’s richest treasures reside underwater. Minerals and metals from the ocean floor help power smartphones, computers, electric vehicles, and more. With demand for these resources rising, Earth’s seabed may soon open for mining—ready or not.

Scientists have explored some of the Moon and scratched Mars’ surface. But they know fairly little about the ocean depths. The Creator God knows every atom of the universe. What a comfort to know that He both sees and sustains His people—even if they travel to the depths of the sea! (Psalm 139:7-10)

Today, coastal nations manage their few miles of watery territory. Beyond those boundaries lie the “high seas.” The International Seabed Authority (ISA) governs the ocean floor on the high seas. ISA’s authority comes from a United Nations treaty.

The treaty applies to every country. It labels the seabed and its resources the “common heritage of mankind.” As such, it requires countries to share economic benefits, support marine research, and protect high seas environments.

Exploring international waters means obtaining a license from the ISA. About 30 companies currently operate deep-sea exploration operations. Now some countries or companies want to go beyond exploring: They want to mine for valuable resources like copper and manganese.

Deep-sea mining involves harvesting materials from the ocean floor using giant vacuums and pumps, AI-enabled robots, or machines for drilling into underwater mountains.

In 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru applied to deep-sea mine. The ISA didn’t have rules in place, so Nauru’s request triggered a rush to draft a Mining Code.

An official code would govern how and where deep-sea miners could quarry. It would also address issues like effects on marine life and ownership of mining profits.

The ISA missed its two-year deadline for a code. According to treaty rules, the ISA must now accept mining bids—without a code in place.

Conservationists fear mining will damage delicate ecosystems, especially with no regulations. Noise, vibrations, light pollution, chemical leaks, and sediment pumping can all happen during or after mining. These can harm corals, sponges, and other sea creatures. Scientists worry some damage could be permanent.

ISA regulations specify mining cannot begin until 2026. That leaves some time to figure out the best path forward.

There are critical considerations: Deep-sea mining may help supply the world’s demand for certain minerals—but it can also present serious risks to ocean life.

It’s unclear how many countries support deep-sea mining. Some want extracting to begin right away. But more than a dozen have called for a pause until safeguards are in place.

As pressure mounts, the two deep-sea mining sides seem oceans apart.

Why? Humans make rules for families, communities, states, and countries. But who makes rules for the ocean? Earthly governments must share responsibility for what happens in unclaimed territory.

View a bubble map that shows how one event (such as requests to mine the seabed) can lead to another.

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