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Mining the ocean floor

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The reason: Nautilus Minerals Inc. in Toronto has applied to the government of Papua New Guinea for a lease to mine deposits of copper and gold on the slopes of an active undersea volcano about a mile beneath the Bismarck Sea. Hearings on the application wrapped up in early April.

To be sure, Nautilus’s effort remains a baby step, given the unrealized, widespread hype over deep-sea mining in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Indeed, the regulations are being crafted “for an industry that doesn’t exist yet,” says Nii Odunton, the ISA’s secretary-general.

But the effort is being watched closely. To many researchers and environmentalists, now is the time to ensure that seafloor ecosystems have advocates at the table. Some marine ecologists are trying to figure out how regulators might set up marine-protected areas along mid-ocean ridges.

But, like deep-sea mining itself, the effort is tentative. Marine biologists haven’t thought much about strategies for minimizing the impact of mining on ecosystems found on or around massive sulfide deposits, says Cindy Van Dover, an oceanographer who heads the marine science and conservation department at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, N.C.

“This has not been on our radar screen,” she says. “And this has got to change.”

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