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
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
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
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
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. …