Mining Companies Turn Their Sights on Undersea Vents

Article excerpt

The volcanic hot springs of the deep sea are dark oases that teem with blind shrimp, giant tube worms and other bizarre creatures, sometimes in profusions great enough to rival the chaos of rain forests. And they are old.

Scientists who study them say these odd environments, first discovered two decades ago, may have been the birthplace of all life on Earth, making them central to a new wave of research on evolution.

Now, in a moment that diverse ranks of experts have feared and desired for years, miners are invading the hot springs, possibly setting the stage for the last great battle between industrial development and environmental preservation. The undersea vents are rich not just in life but in valuable minerals like copper, silver and gold. Indeed, their smoky chimneys and rocky foundations are virtual foundries for precious metals. The copper lodes of Cyprus, for example, worked since the days of the Greek city-states, are just one concentration of metal nudged above sea level by geological forces. The fields of undersea gold have long fired the imaginations of many scientists and economists, but no mining took place, in part because the rocky deposits were hard to lift from depths of a mile or more. Now, however, miners have staked the first claim to such metal deposits after finding the richest ores ever. The estimated value of copper, silver and gold at the South Pacific site is up to billions of dollars. Environmentalists, though, want to protect the exotic ecosystem by banning or severely limiting mining. "This has always been out in the future somewhere," said Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, a marine biologist and deep-sea explorer, of efforts to mine the sea's volcanic zones. "Now it's here." The mining claim was made by Nautilus Minerals, a company run by Australian businessmen in cooperation with Australian government scientists. In late November, it won title to nearly 2,000 square miles of the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea and is now exploring the region for volcanic riches. Its efforts were announced just before Christmas. The company plans to start taking preliminary hauls of 10,000 tons in the next two years and to begin commercial mining in the next five if the region's deep hot springs turn out to be as wide and rich as preliminary studies indicate. Sample ores are up to 26 percent zinc and 15 percent copper, with seven ounces of silver to the ton and about one ounce of gold -- bonanza figures by land standards. "It has worldwide implications," A. Geoff Loudon, the company's chairman, said of the discovery. Japan, a leader of deep-sea exploration, is mapping the volcanic regions of its deep waters with an eye toward exploiting them. Such riches are especially attractive to a giant of industry with few mineral riches on land. "They are a resource-deficient nation in terms of land and see their future under the ocean," said Dr. Peter A. Rona, a marine geologist at Rutgers University who pioneered explorations of volcanic hot springs and tracks the rising interest in mining them. Experts worry that despite research on how the extraction of minerals and metals from the volcanic deposits might affect deep creatures, prospective miners may repeat some of the past abuses and ecologic tragedies that haunt mines on land. "The big issues are environmental," Rona said. "That's a very delicate ecosystem and a genetic pool that we're just starting to understand in terms of the evolution of life. …