The Age of Krypton – Our Ocean and Minerals
According to the National Ocean Service, only 5% of the earth’s ocean has been discovered. If the rainforest is the earth’s lungs then the ocean can be said to be the earth’s blood. Covering 70% of the earth’s surface, the oceans are responsible for regulating temperature, driving weather and most importantly supporting all life organisms. How much of the ocean have we explored? Not much so far.
Deep ocean mining needs no introduction; the modern world is reliant on many finite materials, oil being one of the main sources sought. But many other materials such as metals like Nickel or Copper are necessary whether it’s for building wires or for making stainless steel and can be found in vast quantities in the global deep sea floor.
Despite the fact that little is known about the ocean, it is home to thousands or even millions of creatures that have lived on earth far longer than any land creature can even dream. Mining in general has never seen any good effects on the environment.
In 2014, an agreement was made between a Canadian mining company and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to dig up an area of the seabed in order to extract ores such as gold, copper from a depth of 1500m arguing that it would bring much needed revenue to the region. The company, Nautilus Minerals had been eyeing the area since the 1990s and under the agreement PNG would have 15% stake in the mine. No doubt mineral wealth creates jobs for the surrounding community especially those which are from low and middle income countries.
“Chile, for instance, in the 1990s set up cooperative programs between the public and private sectors to increase the capacity of domestic firms to produce quality inputs for mining operations. From a modest beginning, Chile has become a regional supplier of mining goods and services, with this relatively new industry employing about 10 percent of that country’s workforce—720,000 jobs—in 2011.”
AHowever, sustainability of such nations are incredibly challenging and measures are needed for the time when the country runs out of these precious minerals, creating building blocks for the reliance of sustainable energy being key in the countries survival.
However, taking a step away from the economic value of mining, the health impacts that are associated with factories are far from good. Generally, when mining occurs, miners and other factory workers will tend to live near the site for ease and convenience. This creates a fairly healthy economy of the area at the price of the public’s health due to the pollution factories produce. This pollution is known as Particulate Matter pollution.
“In West Oakland, CA, a predominantly low-income community of color, heavy industry and neighborhoods practically overlap. The result is an area of mixed-use zoning where homes, child care centers and schools are next door to large toxic polluters. There is no breathing space or buffer zone to protect residents from industrial PM emissions. Asthma rates in the area exceed county averages and statewide rates.”
Global Community Monitor (GCM), an environmental justice organization created an independent air testing program, known as the ‘Bucket Brigade,’ which empowers pollution-affected residents to take scientifically credible samples using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved methods and laboratories. Within a residential area of West Oakland, a group of GCM trained community residents monitored air emissions from a scrap metal recycling facility. The facility accepts scrap metal and melts down the aluminum to be repurposed. Considered a ‘green’ business, it is currently under-regulated by the local air district. PM emissions from this facility have gone off-site and the PM pollution has been found within the community, including the local high school. Results from the air monitoring done in the community indicate elevated levels lead and other toxic metals including mercury, manganese, nickel and arsenic. The most likely health impacts of exposure to these pollutants are an increased risk of kidney disease, neurological damage, cancer and asthma.
Henceforth, not only will marine life be affected by the mining but also the citizens of the country who may have a staple diet consisting of fish and other such seafood. Countries like Japan have experienced similar pollution to their tuna, which was found to contain a high amount of mercury. Although, it would take quite a large amount of tuna in order to affect the recipient, mercury in high quantity can cause brain damage to its consumer. The Japanese government were forced to create restrictions in the 1970s after industrial mercury poisoning in the southern town of Minamata sickened thousands and caused severe birth defects in the 1950s and ’60s.This banned many types of seafood that contained a concentration of mercury exceeding 0.4 parts per million. The limit being is 0.3 parts per million for mercury’s more dangerous derivative, methylmercury however tuna is excluded from this ban.
It is not a stretch to imagine that the mining of the seabed would cause similar biological effects to the surrounding fishes, and in a domino effect the community at large, starting from the coastal towns. In fact he oldest experiment, evaluating the effects of sea mining assessed twenty-six years after the impact, still leaves an obvious disturbance on the sea-floor and both the number of animals and species present in the disturbed area was reduced. Although some evidence of recovery was found, very few types of animals returned to previous levels even after decades.
A study also found that polymetallic nodules are required to preserve abyssal epifauna. Since vast areas are being targeted by concession holders for future mining, large-scale effects of these activities are expected therefore insight into the fauna associated with nodules is crucial to support effective environmental management. Polymetallic nodules are found at the surface of soft deep-sea bottoms at abyssal depths and large areas of concentration of nodular deposits can be found in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, little is known of the biodiversity of these remote areas but harmful effects are once again expected. At present, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) aims to develop a regulatory framework for mineral exploitation in the area beyond national jurisdiction in the near future hence, an improved knowledge of the fauna associated with nodules is crucial for establishing mining regulations and procedures.
Four license areas, covering approximately 1300 km in an east-west direction along the eastern CCZ, plus one of the nine Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI no. #3)targeted by ISA for preservation, were visited during the EcoResponse cruise (March–April 2015) .
Alcyonacea, Antipatharia, Actiniaria and Porifera (4 of the 8 major epifauna groups) were found to be most abundant in areas with higher concentration of nodules.
“Video transects along recent tracks (eight months old from a dredge in a nodule site in the GSR license area and approximately three years old from an epibenthic sledge track in a nodule-free IFREMER area) revealed an almost complete depletion of sessile epifauna, with only a few actiniarians inhabiting the sidewards displaced nodules and sediment. Echinoids were the most successful colonizers of the three-year old track showing densities nine times higher than on the surrounding undisturbed, nodule-free seabed . However, on the eight month old track of the GSR area mobile fauna decreased by 50% or more compared to the nearby undisturbed seabed containing nodules.” Illustrating the decreased fauna diversity caused by a lack of polymetallic nodules in that area of the ocean.
Focusing back on the previous example of the deep ocean mining in PNG, due to start in 2018 the mining would involve digging up sediment from the seabed and destroying the hydrothermal vent chimneys containing gold and copper ore deposits. This liquid ore slurry would then be transferred to a ship via pipe, where it would be dewatered before ultimately going to a land-based processing facility.
Overall, the whole intention behind such mining is to find a credible source for metals and other resources that humans have used in excess for the last century so that the industry can survive another few decades longer. Echoing the history of the very popular comic book superhero Superman’s home Krypton, whose destruction was the result of the people’s overmining and eventual disability of the planets core. Although fictional, it is uncanny how predictive the comic has been in relations to where earth is headed should the mining industry continue its course.