© Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority
This fact sheet was updated on July 5, 2018, to reflect updated information on deep sea mining exploration claims and the timetable for developing International Seabed Authority seabed mining rules. It was previously updated on April 3, 2017, to correct several data points regarding the status of seabed mining and the rules being developed.
The deepest parts of the world’s ocean feature ecosystems found nowhere else on Earth. They provide habitat for multitudes of species, many yet to be named. These vast, lightless regions also possess deposits of valuable minerals in rich concentrations. Deep-sea extraction technologies may soon develop to the point where exploration of seabed minerals can give way to active exploitation.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is charged with formulating and enforcing rules for all seabed mining that takes place in waters beyond national jurisdictions. These rules are now under development. Environmental regulations, liability and financial rules, and oversight and enforcement protocols all must be written and approved within three to five years.
Plans for the exploitation of seabed minerals rely on the fact that some valuable substances can be found in greater concentrations in certain areas of the ocean floor than in most terrestrial sites. Sought-after commodities include copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, lead, lithium, titanium, platinum, gold, and zinc. The ISA has signed exploration contracts for investigating three types of mineral resources:
Polymetallic nodules contain rich concentrations of manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt. They are found in abundance in a few ocean basins, most notably the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a great abyssal plain as wide as the continental United States that lies 4,000 to 6,000 meters below the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Billions of the potato-size nodules are scattered on top of or half-embedded within the muddy bottom of the CCZ. Their exploitation would probably involve scraping 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) off the top of the abyssal plain, separating the nodules from the mud, pumping the nodules to a surface ship by means of a giant tube, and returning the entrained water and fine particles through another tube.
Polymetallic sulfide deposits are found in areas of underwater volcanic activity and seafloor spreading, usually at depths of 1,000 to 4,000 meters. Deposits are often located near tectonic plate boundaries. Hydrothermal vents release superheated, mineral-rich solutions. As these solutions cool, the minerals precipitate out, forming towers on the seafloor with high concentrations of valuable minerals. Deposits formed by these eruptions, along with shallow subsurface deposits, could provide rich but moderately sized areas for mineral exploitation. Operations would remove the sulfide-rich deposits and return water and fine particles through a tube.
Concentrations of valuable minerals are often found on the sides and summits of underwater mountains. The richest deposits are found at depths of 800 to 2,500 meters as crusts of seamounts in the western Pacific. Crust thicknesses can reach 25 centimeters (almost 10 inches), but more typical deposits run to 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches). The basic mode of exploitation would be to remove the cobalt-rich layer on the seamount surface while leaving behind the less valuable rock beneath it.
As of 2018, there are 29 ISA-approved contracts for exploration in the Area.