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Mining the ocean floor

It’s not yet a gold rush to the ocean floor, but seabed prospecting is raising concerns.

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Sea life around deep-ocean hydrothermal vents could be affected by an eventual push to harvest minerals near them.

Courtesy of ‘Volcanoes of the Deep Sea’/Rutgers university

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Pompeii worms, clams, and snails with iron scales armoring their feet are not exactly the cuddly icons that open checkbooks during environmental fundraisers.

But these denizens of the very, very deep are emerging as poster children for concerns about the environmental effects of mining minerals on the deep-sea floor – in particular, around hydrothermal vents that appear in vent fields dotting the length of the globe’s mid-ocean ridges.

For decades, the prospect that companies would seek fortunes on the seafloor has seemed remote, says Porter Hoagland, a marine-policy specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

From the 1950s through the ’90s, the dawn of the age of deep-sea mining was always considered to be 10, 15, or 20 years away, he says. “It was kind of a receding horizon.” But, he adds, conditions have changed.

Deep-sea exploration and extraction technologies have improved. Until the current global economic slump, rising prices for metals added luster to undersea deposits of gold, copper, and other metals. And the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – tasked under the Law of the Sea Treaty to set up rules governing mining and mining exploration under the sea – is moving to draft regulations governing prospecting and exploration of massive sulfide deposits.

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