The deep sea is the most mysterious realm on Earth, and remains virtually untouched by human activity.
But this vast wilderness may soon experience a rude awakening. Over one million square kilometers of ocean floor, between 800 and 6,000 meters deep, have been earmarked for exploration by mining companies. While seabed mining has occurred at shallower locations within national borders, it has never been conducted in deep international waters before.
Unlike the offshore oil industry, which has been drilling in underwater environments for decades (with sometimes devastating consequences), the machinery required to mine gold, zinc, nickel, copper, manganese, and other valuable minerals from the deep sea is only now reaching maturation. It may be less than a year before this type of industrial extraction kicks off, and vessels are already prospecting to get a sense of their potential yield.
Now, you can track these ships online with Deep Sea Mining Watch, a web tool launched on Wednesday at the Dreamforce software conference in San Francisco. It's the first public platform that allows users to directly follow the movements and distribution of these vessels, according to Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and a marine biology professor at UC Santa Barbara.
"Our philosophy is just serving up information, trying to make it more accessible, and letting people know exactly where and what is happening with this industry in the oceans," McCauley told me over the phone.
The tool's dataset is generated by automatic identification system (AIS) trackers that ships are required to carry to prevent collisions with other ocean traffic. McCauley and his team previously used this method for a project called Global Fishing Watch, which uses AIS trackers to monitor fishing vessels around the world, in part to ensure that they don't exploit protected areas. "Everyone behaves more responsibly when they have a tracker attached to them," he noted.
For Deep Sea Mining Watch, the team developed new parameters to sift for signs of ocean prospectors in a dozen regions across Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
READ MORE: The Underwater Industrial Revolution Is Driving Ocean Life to Extinction
"You can have a fishing vessel that can be pretty small, but you can't have a small mining vessel," he explained. "We started searching for big vessels that are doing particular kinds of mining and prospecting-associated behavior. That's how we pull them out of the billions of data points about all vessels that are floating around on the ocean."
The map illustrates the growth of this emerging industry. For instance, this graphic from the new tool displays claimed regions stretching 4,500 kilometers across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, a distance roughly equivalent to the diameter of the continental United States.
Even ocean experts like McCauley were surprised at how actively the seabed is being probed for minerals, now that companies have developed the technologies necessary to extract them.
"I thought, 'wow it's actually happening and these vessels are out there searching around inside their claims'," he told me. "I think that same epiphany, or that same kind of connection to the reality of this, is what we're hoping to inspire for anybody who jumps on the tool. It's not the material of The Abyss, or science fiction. This is something that we're able to do."
The question is: Should we do it, and if so, to what extent? The intimidating 300-ton bulk cutters that mining companies plan to drive through these undisturbed regions will no doubt tap into a wealth of new resources, but they will also disrupt delicate seafloor ecosystems that we know next to nothing about.
"These are often very ancient, very slow-growing ecosystems," McCauley pointed out. "Species are found there and nowhere else on the planet, and many of the species are just getting discovered. So, the prospect that you are going to grind a road on that space and then roll one of these 300-ton robots over the top of it and suck it all out—that makes a few alarm bells go off in terms of what the impact would be."
Indeed, these hulking machines would not only be disrupting life in their direct path. They are also expected to create a lot of noise pollution, while kicking up plumes of sediment that could choke out organisms in higher escalons of the water column. They might even contribute to climate change by disturbing normal carbon storage processes in the ocean.
Some companies have acknowledged the potential environmental costs of seabed mineral extraction, including Nautilus Minerals, the industry's main trailblazer, which is headquartered in Toronto. But Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston has argued that it would be more damaging to continue mining solely on land than to open up this new frontier.
"Growing copper demand requires our industry to look at more sustainable ways to meet this demand," Johnston said in a statement. "As showcased in Earth Economics' Report, seafloor mining has the potential to not only provide economic benefits within the communities nearest to the operations while minimizing the impact of copper mining, it also has the potential to change the physical nature of the mining industry for the better."
The Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority,an intergovernmental organization established in 1982 by the United Nations, is responsible for balancing the interests of the mining industry with environmentalists and advocacy groups.
"It is a brand new legal space and technological space," McCauley told me. "The International Seabed Authority has been writing the rules literally as they go forward because we have never mined in the oceans, and we are figuring out how to do it."
To that point, tools like Deep Sea Mining Watch will play an essential role for public activism about seabed mining and its consequences. "I think it will at least make people want to engage more with the question when you see and learn about the slow life history and the unique species that are being discovered," McCauley said.
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