Mining the Oceans for Rare Earths - An Environmental Disaster?

Recently it was announced that Lockheed Martin, the largest United States defense contractor, in partnership with the British Government would begin a large scale prospecting venture in the Pacific Ocean for rare earth elements and other metals. Lockheed was granted a contract to explore a 58,000 square Kilometer area (about 1/4 the size of Oregon) lying on the ocean floor south of Hawaii and west of Mexico. More information on this partnership can be found in this BBC article.

Although most people aren't aware, a branch of the United Nations has issued 17 licenses for exploration of seafloor mining, and another two licenses are soon be issued. These permits will cover a total area about the size of the United States. They have been issued to governments and companies in China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea. They will be mining the metal nodules found on the ocean floor which have 10 times the rare earths and minerals as are found in rocks mined on land. Companies also will be mining hydro thermal vents (chimneys formed by extremely hot water),which are similarly rich in minerals.

Model of Nautilus mining equipment.
 Note size relative to man.
Many marine scientists and conservationists have warned that the impact of mining these metals are not fully understood. They say that mining these nodules or hydro-thermal vents could prove catastrophic for seabed ecology. These mining operations could create large plumes of sediment that could drift through the sea and choke marine life that feeds by ingesting water and filtering out its food sources. (To read more on this, click here and here.)

Actual mining equipment built by Nautilus
Even the general counsel for the International Seabed Authority that issued the permits, said "The nodules are generally lying in sediment that is between 2-6in (5-15cm) thick that's been there undisturbed for millions of years. We simply don't know the recovery times or the distribution of species - there are lots of uncertainties." (More about these issues can be read here.) He also said mining hydro-thermal vents was "more invasive" because it would involve breaking up the uppermost  of the sea floor and piping the rock fragments to the surface, but Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian corporation is starting to mine sea vents for rare earths and other minerals off the coast of Papua New Guinea this year.

There is a great likelihood of large-scale mining operations in our oceans in the very near future. These mining operations could result in severe environmental degradation of our oceans and ultimately impact the world's food supply. The more rare earth elements we recycle, the lesser the need to mine these ocean resources. Every person reading this needs to inform their neighbors, their family and their friends about the environmental risk of mining our oceans and urge them to recycle their E-waste. Remember that one metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the US. Remind them also that Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 US homes in a year. If we would recycle most of our E-waste, there would be no need to mine the oceans. Also urge them to change their consumption habits. We do not need to embrace every upgrade cycle! Buy refurbished or used phones when you can. Please act now - recycle your E-waste and save our oceans!


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