The world’s largest mountain range appears as flat as a pancake from sea level.
The ridge of mountains and valleys that snakes from north to south is longer than both the Andes Mountains and the North American Cordillera, and in some places taller than the Himalayas. Few have seen the world’s largest mountain range, much less scaled its peaks. This is because it lies under seawater covering thousands of metres.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is located somewhere under our feet, on the RRS James Cook. The waves are more than 15 feet tall, and the trade winds blow across the water with speeds up to 50mph. This is a rough sea, and the ship and crew are tossed around.
There is no sunbathing on the deck, as it is adorned with heavy machinery and cranes that are constantly in motion.
A special geology team on a mission is on board. They operate machinery during the day, but at night they study stones and porous cores of rocks. They have come to the sea to study the land formations that are found at the center of the ocean.
As you read this, the North American plate is slowly separating from the Eurasian Plate at a rate around an inch per year. This gradual and inexorable separation was the catalyst for the breakup of Pangea, the supercontinent, 200 million years back. As these two continents separate, geological activity begins to fill in the gap: volcanic eruptions, pillow-lava, and hot, smoking towers of rock.
Most of this is happening out of sight, but to get a better idea of what’s going on, Iceland, the land of geysers and volcanoes, is one the few parts of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that are located on earth.
Imagine a much larger sub-aquatic range than the one on the surface.
We don’t really know what lies beneath the sea. This latest mission to Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a way of achieving that goal. Bram Murton is the chief scientist of Project Ultra. He describes it as an high-tech, mystery story.
The mystery revolves around a series of conical features, about 150 meters high, that were discovered during a bathymetric study of this area in the Sargasso sea years ago.
Bram says that everyone assumed the rocks were volcanic. “We weren’t so sure.”
Russia invaded Ukraine just before the ship set sail late in February 2022. The majority of the work was done by a St Petersburg-based team, but after the invasion the UK Foreign Office refused to allow the Russian scientists to board the ship as planned for fear of a diplomatic event.
is not an accident that a visit to a mound on the bottom of the ocean would attract the attention of government officials. These missions are becoming increasingly important for national security. They are searching for vast treasures – a 21st century version of the undersea treasure trove. Copper is one of the treasures found in these waters.
The story begins with HMS Challenger. A former battleship, she was on a survey mission in 1872 to map the ocean floor. She brought up some odd-looking lumps the size of potatoes from the Pacific.
Later, these dark, slightly crumbly, smooth-on-top, rough-on bottom stones became known as polymetallic nodules.
If you were to look at the seafloor of the Clarion-Clipperton zone, you’d see countless nodules.
Minerals accrete over the course of millions of years around organic fragments, such as a shark tooth or a shell, that have fallen to the seabed.
The concentration of these mineral deposits is stunning, at least from the perspective of a geologist: Nickel, manganese and cobalt, all in grades that you don’t see on the surface.
These nodules were the first indication of the vast mineral wealth that lies beneath the sea, which could satisfy the raw material needs of humanity for many generations.
According to one study, there’s enough gold in the ocean for everyone on earth to have 9lb worth of it. That would be $170,000 per person. A second study found that the cost of obtaining that gold was more than twice that amount, so you shouldn’t hold your breathe.
Consider cobalt, one of the rarer metals in the world and an essential ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most insecure countries in the world. Conditions in mines are notoriously poor.
Cobalt is not the only battery metal that raises such concerns. Nickel is also needed for high-performance battery chemistries. However, much of the nickel produced worldwide comes from Indonesia, which involves the destruction and disposal of tailings into rivers and seas.
Here is a way to see the potential that exists under the ocean: Currently, the DRC, Zambia, and other countries have about 25 million metric tonnes of cobalt. Under the sea there are 120 million tonnes of cobalt, which is found in polymetallic nodules, as well as another feature known under water as cobalt rich crusts.
Around 300 million tonnes of nickel are found on the surface. Around 270 million tonnes are estimated to be in the Clarion/Clipperton Zone, but this is only one area of the Pacific. The total amount is likely much higher.
If we are to fulfill our promise to to eliminate the world’s CO2 emissions then humankind will require staggering amounts of not only these exotic battery materials but even more copper.
Copper is used in electric cars, for grids, for solar panels, for generators and thick cables that carry power from wind turbines. The red metal is used in almost everything.
Copper has been a forgotten metal when it comes down to the ocean floor for several reasons.
First, we’re pretty good at extracting copper from the earth. So, until recently, few geologists gave much thought to the concept of “peak copper”, where we reach our limits in terms of what we’re willing or able to remove.
Second, while there’s plenty of copper to be found in these polymetallic nodules (in fact there are 230 million tonnes in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone) the numbers don’t seem as impressive as they would for nickel or cobalt.
This is partly because the richest reserves of copper are found elsewhere: in the remains and vents from which chemical-rich, volcanically heated water erupts from the seabed, along submerged mountain ranges such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
If you were to cut off one of the black smokers, you’d find a variety of materials, including iron, zinc, and selenium, as well as a crystalline mineral called chalcopyrite that can contain up to 20% copper.
After a few thousand year, the black smoker will become inactive, and then collapse. This leaves behind some the richest copper ore in the world.
No one knows how many seafloor massive sulfurides there are.
The numbers that have been extrapolated based on the number of black smokers found along mid-oceanridges are not encouraging. According to one estimate, the massive sulphides on earth’s ocean floor could yield up to 30 million tonnes each of zinc and copper.
What if they are wrong? What if these sites are more prevalent than they thought, and not by just a small amount but by multiples of that?
Bram and his crew have finally come to the middle ocean to look at a few mounds that most geologists wouldn’t bother to investigate.
The team has brought along an immense deep-sea drill rig. It is one of only a few in the entire world that can withstand the strains and pressures of working at 3,000 metres below sea level. It drilled into the seabed for a whole month, collecting rock cores that were unusually long and contributing to seismic surveys. Bram says that the early results were “quite remarkable”.
The amount of minerals deposits is staggering. “I think that it will completely change our understanding as to how much copper is there on the seabed.”
It is too soon to know where the estimates for ourocean floor resources stand. Research is ongoing at this time. This small area under the Sargasso Sea, which is not included in the conventional estimates for sub-sea resources of copper, contains tens and millions of tonnes.
Bram says that you could be looking at 20-40 times more than these assessments.
This would mean that deep-sea reserves of copper could be well over one billion tonnes. That’s a staggering amount – far more than all our terrestrial reserves. It would be enough to supply all the copper in the world for decades.
What’s the catch, you ask?
The convention center where the International Seabed Authority holds its meetings reminds me of the Roger Moore era James Bond films. There is a line of telephone booths, where Bond calls back to London discreetly before facing Blofeld’s henchmen. The plate-glass windows are just waiting to be broken for a speedboat escape out of Kingston Bay.
The wallpaper looks garish. The chairs are like old museum pieces. And the desks of the main hall, which is huge, have buttons all over them: for voting, intercoms or ejector seats.
The fact that the area feels like a time capsule, untouched by the outside world, is fitting. One could also say the same about the ISA. This is the United Nations’ institution whose task it is to manage most of the ocean floor and determine who is entitled to the minerals below the waves.
The rule on where the ISA has jurisdiction is simple: any water area 200 nautical miles from any country’s coast qualifies as a part of the high seas, an area which, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, is the “common inheritance of mankind”.
When I entered the ISA library, I was given a copy of the convention from a large shelf of books.
The high seas are a kind of diplomatic and economical grey area. This means that there is not much to stop us from using them for a huge communal trashbin (we already do this) or from overfishing (we also do this).
What happens when they start mining them? They can they just send down diggers and begin grinding and blasting them?
Is there a limit to the extraction of oil or is it a Wild West, like the fishing industry? The questions are more interesting today, given the fact that submersible technology can do all of this.
Deep-sea mines were once considered a pipedream. Although the commercial case has yet to be proved, no one is doubting that deep-sea mining can be physically done.
Many wonder if some of the secretive resource-focused countries, such as China and Russia, are already doing it.
The ISA is in a difficult position because it’s supposed to be the one in charge and yet the vast majority (of known resources) – the polymetallic crusts, nodules and smokers – are under the sea. This obscure institution is all that stands between a deep sea mining rig’s angry end and the collective heritage of humanity.
When you visit the ramshackle office next to the 1970s convention center, it doesn’t feel like the frontline of a global resource race. It feels more like a bit of a… emptiness.
The ISA is determined to ensure that everyone, in some way, benefits from this new frontier. When and if extraction begins, every country will be required to share their royalties with all other countries in the world. This is in order to honour the clause of the “common heritage” clause. If we ever get there, it remains to be seen.
Over the years, mining companies have watched and waited as the ISA slowly drafted a set mining rules. Once approved, these rules would be the starting gun for companies to start deep-sea mines on the high seas.
Some people can’t wait for the gun to fire. Gerard Barron is a controversial figure. He wants to be known as Indiana Jones, the Indiana Jones of deep sea exploration, with his leather jackets and designer stubble.
It planned to extract sulphides from the seafloor off the coasts of Papua New Guinea but went bankrupt after its relations with the government soured.
Barron hopes for better with his next car, which was originally called DeepGreen and later renamed The Metals Company.
It is planned to mine polymetallic nidus in an area of the Pacific that belongs to the island country of Nauru. He says that the copper, nickel cobalt, and manganese will help to fuel energy transition.
Barron’s conversations are filled with a barrage names being dropped (e.g. “Yes, Elon has expressed interest. . . Leo and I agreed that Hollywood must get involved. . . Lewis wanted to make a change, but F1 isn’t ready yet. . .’), But adjust for them, and there is no doubt that the dream is exciting.
He says, “This is the final great extraction.” “We have to make batteries, but then it’s all about recycling. It’s the circular economics.”
We don’t want to sell metals, we rent them. We support brands that use recycled metals. “Let the science speak for itself.”
The company sponsored peer-reviewed studies that show, among other things: While a kilogram produced by a conventional mine produces 460 kilograms waste, a kilogram produced by polymetallic nodules only generates 29 kilograms waste.
With ores so concentrated, you don’t even need to create tailings.
Metals Company’s autonomous vehicle would go down to the ocean floor to vacuum up these tiny nodules, and then pump them to the surface. No blasting or digging was required. You could argue that the greenest way to mine copper or cobalt, or nickel from the ocean floor is by using an autonomous vehicle.
There is, of course, a huge catch. While Barron advocates a rapid start for deep-sea mines, and aggressively pushes the ISA to release its rules as soon as possible, other countries are moving in the opposite directions.
Chile, who is tightening up its regulations for copper mining at home, has called for a moratorium in 2022 on deep-sea mines until they are sure of the environmental impacts. Fiji, Palau, and many other nations joined the call.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged UN member states to “create a legal framework to end high sea mining”.
Chile, France, and Fiji all sit on the ISA’s main policymaking committee, so its meetings in Jamaica – long dismissed as a footnote to international diplomacy – threaten to turn into a truly dramatic event.
It is possible that deep-sea mines could be banned effectively before they have even started.
One can certainly understand the caution. Seafloors are among the most pristine habitats on Earth. Yet we know far less about them than any other ecosystem.
Human intervention will have an ecological impact in some way.
The ISA has allotted a 3,900-square-mile section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to Poland. This area would be unremarkable if it weren’t for a strange formation at the heart of this region, called the Lost City. It is a collection of eerie, white chimneys that appear out of the darkness and are creating hydrocarbons – life-building blocks.
This extraordinary set of stony Cathedral spires – the key to the life itself, and the only example known on the planet – has been designated by the ISA as a deep-sea mine. The ISA has designated this extraordinary set of stony cathedral spires – the key to life itself, the only known example on the planet – as a site for deep sea mining.
A sister UN agency turned it into an exploration site for mining.
No one expected Poland to destroy the Lost City. Those tall, white towers are not a source of valuable metals. Mining companies claim that by sending exploration vehicles deep into the earth’s crust, we are likely to find more sites similar to it.
They say that the race to mine deep should improve our understanding about these formations and eco-systems. It is difficult to not be unnerved at this new frontier of mining.