Magazine article The Spectator

The Scramble for the Seas

Magazine article The Spectator

The Scramble for the Seas

Article excerpt

The Chinese have kick-started a new era of deep sea mining, says Charles Clover, and Russia, America and Britain will surely follow suit. The oceans are rich in oil and precious metals, but there is a price to pay for exploiting them

Almost unnoticed, in May, during the first weeks of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a new era in man's exploitation of the oceans began. The Chinese government lodged an application with the United Nations to mine for minerals on a ridge 1,700 metres down in the south-west Indian Ocean, outside any individual nation's jurisdiction. It is the first application of its kind for mining in international waters, and so has potentially vast implications - for international law, for the price of metals, and for the marine environment. It is likely to be the first of many.

Experts have expected that someone would want to mine the sea floor since the 1970s. What looked like starting the ball rolling was the mining of manganese deposits - allegedly used by the CIA as cover for the attempted raising of wrecked Soviet submarines. The economics never stacked up and there are eight dormant claims for mining manganese in the Pacific. Now the keen prices for metals such as nickel, cobalt and tellurium, used in computers, batteries, mobile phones and military applications, have made the Chinese think that it is worth the many billions of yuan that it would take to establish and mine a claim on the sea bed.

Asia's manufacturing nations want security of supply and steady prices for the raw materials presently found within the borders of corrupt African democracies, failed states and dictatorships.

China wants to mine a rich layer of sulphide deposits in an area of hydrothermal vents - geysers driven by volcanic activity. Exploration in the central Pacific with remotely operated underwater vehicles has shown that sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents can contain ores ten times richer than any left unexploited on land. Indeed, the richest deposits of copper known to the ancient world, on Cyprus, are now thought to have come from hydrothermal vents that ended up above sea level.

The area of allegedly now inactive hydrothermal vents, found by the Chinese only three years ago, is known to contain metals such as copper, nickel, trace metals such as cobalt, as well as gold and silver. It is, literally, a gold mine. A company called Nautilus is thought to be closest to the prize of opening up deposits of this kind in the deep sea, in the waters of Papua New Guinea. But it is the mining of international waters that will get the environmental community sitting up and paying attention.

When hydrothermal vents were first discovered in the Galapagos Rift in 1977, what surprised scientists was that the tall chimneys on the floor of the Pacific, billowing what looked like black smoke, were teeming with extraordinary, unexpected marine life.

There were unknown mussels, anemones, whelks, limpets, feather duster worms, snails, lobsters, brittle stars and blind white crabs as well as strange jellyfish that looked like dandelions but were related to a Portuguese man-of-war. There were giant clams with blood-red flesh and red-tipped tube worms eight feet long which had no mouths or stomachs and existed on the bacteria they contained. Hotter geysers were found to contain organisms that could exist in total darkness and in water temperatures of more than 100 C. The sea floor, which had been thought to be dark, cold and inhospitable, had turned out to be one of the most fertile places on Earth. There were unique species nestling at the mouth of furnaces in which the earth's richest mineral ores were in the process of formation.

In staking their claim to the deposits of the south-west Indian Ocean, the Chinese have played it by the book. They made an application to the International Seabed Authority, the UN institution set up under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to deal with the liabilities, potential environmental damage and eventual payback to the owners of the resource. …

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