The Deepest Dig
The bottom of the ocean is the most remote, least understood place on Earth. But that isn’t stopping us from mining it.
On the nights before a dive, Cindy Lee Van Dover likes to stand on the deck of her research ship, looking down into the water the way an astronaut might look up at the stars.
She’s preparing herself to do an extraordinary thing: climb into a tiny bubble of light and air and sink to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the sparkling waters of the surface a mile and a half above her.
She makes the trip in a three-person submersible called Alvin, famous for discovering the underwater hot springs known as hydrothermal vents and for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. Alvin sinks for more than an hour. The view from its portholes moves through a spectrum of glowing greens and blues, eventually fading to pure black. The only break from the darkness comes when the sub drops through clusters of bioluminescence that look like stars in the Milky Way. They’re the only way for Van Dover to tell, in the complete darkness and absence of acceleration, that she’s sinking at all.
At last, as Alvin approaches the seafloor, the pilot turns on the external light. Van Dover peers hard, eager for her first glimpse of a strange land of underwater volcanoes and mountain ranges, of vast plains and smoking basalt spires.
It’s the spires — the teetering chimneys that top hydrothermal vents — and their inhabitants that Van Dover has come to see. The animals that live on vents fascinate biologists like her because we understand so little about them. Scientists call them “alien” with only slight exaggeration: Their most basic functions are unlike those of all other life on Earth, and astrobiologists study them to make better guesses about where to look for extraterrestrial life and what it might be like. “It allows us to see how life plays out on the next best thing to another planet,” says David Grinspoon, chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress.
But scientists aren’t the only ones attracted to this strange world. The same vents that support colonies of undulating tubeworms, giant clams, eyeless shrimp, and hairy, tennis-ball-size snails are also conduits for valuable metals fresh from the Earth’s interior. Vents form where seawater seeps into fissures in the Earth’s crust and reacts with the heat of magma, emerging transformed: acidic, boiling hot, and laden with chemicals and minerals. As the water cools, those minerals precipitate out, leaving behind concentrations of metals — gold, copper, nickel, and silver, as well as more esoteric minerals used in electronics — that make the richest mines on dry land look meager.
And where there’s metal, there are miners, even at the bottom of the world.
As an industry, deep-sea mining is brand-new. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which oversees all mining in international waters, was formed in 1994, but by 2011, it had issued only seven exploratory licenses. By the end of this year, it believes that number will jump to 26, with the first license for commercial mining expected as soon as 2016. Only one country, Papua New Guinea, has issued a permit for commercial-scale deep-sea mining in its own waters, though India, Japan, China, and South Korea also have projects in the early stages , and more than a dozen Pacific island nations, whose tiny populations and bureaucracies are dwarfed by their massive marine territories, are scrambling to figure out how to manage mining. Even for an industry that’s seen plenty of false starts, says Michael Lodge, deputy to the secretary-general of the ISA, there is now “a hell of a lot of activity.”
It’s not news that we’re looking beyond the usual places to find the things that power modern society: oil from the Arctic and bitumen from the tar sands, coltan mined by hand in the heart of the Congo, and natural gas fracked from beneath suburban backyards. We’re even talking seriously about mining asteroids.
Still, there’s something pause-worthy about mining the deep ocean. Literally unfathomable, the deep sea is still the most remote and least understood environment on Earth and perhaps the closest thing to a final frontier our beleaguered planet can claim. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo built the Nautilus, he declares, because the sea is the world’s last refuge from humankind: “At thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears.”
Or maybe not. The first company to receive permission to mine the deep sea is called Nautilus Minerals.
Captain Nemo called the undersea world “the land of marvels.” That’s how Van Dover, growing up examining horseshoe crabs on the coast of New Jersey, saw it as well. From the moment she first read a scientific paper about hydrothermal vents, she became fascinated with the real-world denizens of the deep. She wrote to the paper’s author, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, and he agreed to send her a small vial of vent-crab eggs to dissect and analyze. It arrived in the mail “as valuable to me as a moon rock,” she says. Later, with the same scientist’s help, she talked her way onto one of the first biological expeditions to hydrothermal vents. She was too junior to get a spot on a dive, so she busied herself studying dead squat lobsters that the pilots removed from the sub’s exterior.
Van Dover eventually got her first dive in Alvin (she landed next to a bloom of crimson-plumed tubeworms known as the Rose Garden) and later earned her Ph.D. in biological oceanography, but she realized that she craved more time on the seafloor than academia could offer her. So she took on the long, grueling process of training to be an Alvin pilot, becoming the 25th person and the first Ph.D.-level scientist to do so. She was also the first — and is still the only — woman.
These days, Van Dover is the chair of Duke University’s Division of Marine Science and Conservation and the director of a lab that studies the population dynamics of organisms from hydrothermal-vent fields around the world. She’s also something she never expected: a scientific consultant to Nautilus Minerals.
A Canadian company, Nautilus has obtained the mining exploration rights to nearly 200,000 square miles of territory throughout the Pacific, including in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a vast region of international waters southeast of Hawaii that’s known to be rich in polymetallic nodules. Nautilus’s first-in-the-world deep-sea-mining permit gives it permission to dismantle a hydrothermal-vent site known as Solwara 1, located nearly a mile deep in Manus Basin in Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Sea.
Nautilus’s plan for Solwara 1, which the company intends to begin mining in 2017, is to use two large robot excavators to remove chimneys and the first 160 feet of the seafloor. Other specially designed machines will grind this material to slurry and pipe it to the surface. There, solids will be separated out, and excess fluid (acidic and full of chemicals not ordinarily found in the upper ocean) will be pumped back down to the deep sea. The remaining material will be shipped to China, where a company called Tongling will extract gold, silver, and copper. Within the mined area, the vent structures and the animals that once lived on them — examples of which fill jars in Van Dover’s lab — could disappear.
For Van Dover, that’s a heartbreaking thought. “Because these are my babies, right?” she says. “This is stuff I’ve always held and revered.” For years she and her fellow deep-sea scientists believed that the world they studied was far beyond the reach of industry. But as the most accessible land-based minerals are exhausted, those on the bottom of the sea are looking more like low-hanging fruit. “You have to go to more remote places,” Lodge, of the ISA, says. “You have to go deeper.”
In Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea (the country is home to more than 800 languages), “solwara” means “ocean” — “sol” plus “wara” equals “saltwater.” The ocean is integral to life in New Ireland, the island province in whose waters Solwara 1 lies. People here farm coconuts, bananas, sago, and taro, plus buai, or betel nut, to sell at the market. Many don’t use money for much beyond school fees, rides to town, and a few staple supplies. They raise pigs and hunt tree possums called cuscus. And they fish, sometimes far offshore.
Representatives from Nautilus have often visited New Ireland while developing plans for Solwara 1, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the mining project will mean. In Kontu, a village known for its shark-calling festival, I asked a woman named Helen Joel what questions she’d asked the representatives. “We do not ask questions because we do not know,” she replied. During my three weeks in Papua New Guinea last winter, I repeatedly found people turning my own questions back on me: What should we think of the mine? What does it mean for the ocean? The one thing everyone seemed to know was that the mine would be the first, the very first, in the world.
January is the wet season in New Ireland, and the coastal road that edges the Bismarck Sea is unpaved. My rented Land Cruiser stalled repeatedly in deep water and was finally trapped between rain-swollen rivers in a tiny village whose name even my local companions didn’t know. “Ugana,” a man named Ray Wilfred told us. “Not Uganda. That’s in Africa.” Wilfred’s neighbor, Ambrose Barais — a thickset man with a close-trimmed mustache and a thin, dark line tattooed on his right cheek — invited us to dinner with his wife and six children. I asked one of their sons his age, and he looked at me blankly before I remembered the right way to ask. “How many Christmases?” “Seventeen.”
The rain poured without a break. Inside the house, by firelight, Barais’s wife fried whole reef fish and boiled rice. One of the kids asked me what the metals from the seabed would be used for. It struck me how unlikely they were to end up back here, where a family’s only metal possessions might be a few cooking pots and utensils, roofing, and sometimes a cellphone they charge when they have access to a generator.
Barais had been to Messi, a large coastal village less than 20 miles from the mining site, to hear a geologist talk about the project. He remembered seeing an image of a volcano on a laptop screen. “They said seabed mining cannot cause any damage, but people are not believing in what they are saying,” he said. “We heard that, in the world, there is no mine like this.” How did he feel, I asked, about the mine being the first? “Scared,” he answered. “The sea might overflow and kill us.”
That concern may sound silly, but on New Ireland, it — and the other mining-related fears I heard, ranging from earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions to massive fish kills and fundamental changes to the ocean’s currents — makes a certain gloomy kind of sense. Here, the precautionary principle, summed up for me by one New Irelander as “better prevent than regret,” needs little explanation. The province has seen devastating landslides following logging; farmland rendered infertile by oil palm plantations; a steep decline in fish stocks after a land-based gold mine dumped toxic waste into the sea; and rising sea levels caused largely by the emissions of distant, difficult-to-imagine traffic jams and factories. New Irelanders also live in fear of the Earth’s tectonic power. The largest city on a neighboring island, New Britain, was nearly wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 1994, and the island was hit by another eruption this fall. How much more mysterious and forbidding than these disasters are the dark, silent depths of the sea? I parroted the line I’d heard from so many scientists: that the deep sea is like an alien world here on Earth. “Is it true?” Wilfred asked me. “There are aliens?”
When vents were first discovered, less than 40 years ago, the world hailed them as wonders. Here, in what was once thought to be a cold and featureless desert, were strange, smoking oases populated by bizarre creatures that somehow thrived without access to what was understood to be the most basic necessity of life. (Because there is no light in the deep sea, there is no photosynthesis. The energy at the base of the food web comes not from the sun, but from chemical reactions.) It was an astonishing reminder of how little we understood the sea: Here we were, uncovering an entirely unknown way of life on our own planet nearly a decade after sending astronauts to the moon.
Today, the deep sea remains a world of mystery and fantasy, less mapped — and perhaps less present in our collective thoughts — than the surface of Mars. By volume, the dark regions of the ocean comprise more than 98 percent of the planet’s habitat, yet we know exceptionally little about them: not the contours of their mountains and trenches, not the full life cycle of a single deep-sea species.
In Papua New Guinea, opponents of seabed mining make a point of using the word “experimental” when referring to it; they also emphasize the difficulty of tracking or containing the impacts of industry in a shifting and difficult-to-study marine environment. But Nautilus and other companies argue that there are ways in which deep-ocean mining might be less damaging than terrestrial mining. Because minerals are on, or fairly close to, the seabed’s surface, there won’t be massive, open-pit mines like you see on land, and therefore there will be less waste and perhaps less energy use. There won’t be roads and buildings and other infrastructure left behind; everything will be mobile, ready to move on to the next site. No human communities will be displaced. And even vent ecosystems, which are naturally dynamic, won’t face that much more change than they’re used to. Single vents are often active for considerably less than a century due to changes in geothermal activity, becoming clogged by their own deposits or getting destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Solwara 1 is located just over a mile away from an active volcano. This close proximity means the site may disappear soon enough on its own, making deliberate decimation of it somewhat less controversial. (Hydrothermal vents are not the only place to look for minerals: Mining companies are also targeting the cobalt-rich crusts of underwater mountains as well as fields of potato-size polymetallic nodules that form in the ocean’s deepest plains.)
Still, plenty of other concerns come with mining the deep ocean. Scientists worry about sediment, either kicked up off the seafloor or produced by cutting and grinding, mixing into the water and suffocating animals or disrupting filter feeders. If acidic vent fluid and metals aren’t handled carefully when they’re brought out of the deep, they could spill and kill reefs. Nodule mining will mean the destruction of formations that grow just a few millimeters every million years, and the mining of seamount crusts will be akin to underwater mountaintop removal on structures that serve as biological havens for fish and other animals in the open ocean.
But the biggest worry is that we may not yet know what to worry about. How do you do a risk-benefit analysis of something that’s never been done before? How do you decide what’s safe and what’s not in a place whose workings are opaque to you? We know, for example, that the seafloor plays an important role in the way the ocean cycles heat, chemicals, and nutrients — including, crucially, carbon — but not how this process works. We’re not sure how mining may compound other stressors the ocean is facing, from acidification to overfishing. The only way to know how well the deep ocean will recover from disturbance, notes Andrew Thaler, a marine ecologist who used to work in Van Dover’s lab, is to disturb it.
Van Dover has publicly said that she’d prefer vent mining not to happen at all, but she is also convinced that it can’t be stopped. Her best option, she believes, is to help shape how the new industry will be regulated. Given its novelty, deep-sea mining has no bad practices grandfathered in. “It’s a green field,” Van Dover says. “It’s another frontier. We could do it right. But my sense right now is, it’s a free-for-all.” Some colleagues objected when she first started working with Nautilus, but Van Dover says she’s recently seen other scientists working more closely with industry to develop baseline data or best practices, or to identify priority areas for protection. That shift, she says, is the result of a simple calculation with the weight of history behind it. When humans can take something we want, we usually do. And we really want minerals.
We made it to Messi the next day, but only after being turned back twice more by seemingly impassable rivers. Each time, locals helped us find a way across, at one point helping us push the car out of deep mud.
Though the concerns I heard from New Irelanders were different from Van Dover’s, they exposed similarly uncomfortable contradictions. In Messi, a woman named Ruby William told me that the seafloor minerals are masalai — sacred “old things from before” — and should not be harmed. In nearly the next breath, she told me that the community could get behind mining if Nautilus agreed to build a processing plant in New Ireland, creating jobs and bringing money here instead of contracting with China. But aren’t the minerals sacred, I asked? She replied that Papua New Guinean workers would know which ones are sacred and which are not. (She also told me that development and money are the answer to the region’s recent problems with violence and drunkenness; a few houses down, another woman told me that development and money are the source of those problems.)
It eventually became clear that one of my basic questions — if you had a choice, would you want mining? — was confusingly hypothetical. Like Van Dover, William and her family didn’t see much choice. In Papua New Guinea, where most land is communally owned by extended families, villagers have real power as landowners but also know that it’s not enough to stop government officials and foreigners from eventually getting what they want. And so, in the face of inevitability, they negotiate, sorting out who will get how much in royalties or necessary services.
One of the justifications companies like Nautilus offers for seabed mining is that minerals are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by on land. But people began dreaming of mining the deep ocean almost as soon as minerals were discovered there. (During the Cold War, Howard Hughes claimed to be collecting seabed minerals while he teamed with the CIA to search for a sunken Russian nuclear sub; the misdirection was enough to kick off a wave of real commercial interest.) And it’s rarely mentioned that seabed mining will happen in addition to land-based mining, not instead of it, or that we could do a much better job of recycling metals and designing products to be less wasteful.
Deep-sea mining is just one version of a fairly ordinary decision: to weigh known benefits against unknown risks and choose to move ahead. Yet we squirm more than usual to learn that even the bottom of the ocean is no longer beyond the limits of human industry. This is the contradiction of the deep sea. However much it may seem to be a separate, alien world — however much we may like to think of it that way — it isn’t.
Years ago, Van Dover began inviting artists on dives in the hope that one of them would be able to translate the strangeness of the abyssal wilderness to those of us who will never directly witness it. She got the idea from an oceanographer named John Delaney, an early mentor. In 1991, when Van Dover was still working as an Alvin pilot, Delaney invited Michael Collier, a rare nonscientist, aboard a deep-sea research cruise off the Washington coast. Delaney believed the deep sea needed to be seen, and felt, by someone with Collier’s area of expertise. Collier is a poet.
On the day of his scheduled dive, rough weather forced the crew to cancel Alvin’s descent. There was a good chance of another opportunity later in the cruise, but Collier felt he had to go home. The semester had begun, and he had classes to teach. When he told Van Dover, he remembers, “She looked at me, and she said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to go back? You can’t go back. A week doesn’t matter; another week out of your life doesn’t matter. You have to stay and go see the bottom of the ocean.’”
So he stayed and made the dive, dropping through the vast darkness and the rafts of bioluminescence. When the pilot turned on the light, Collier recalls, he looked out his porthole at a field of hydrothermal vents that scientists had dubbed Krypto, Dante, and Hulk and thought to himself, “This is what the beginning of the world looks like.” He spotted giant clams, strange shrimp, and huge colonies of tubeworms, some beautiful and undulating, some scorched by the intensely hot vent water, looking “like wiring in your car that had melted.” He felt as though he were under a spell.
It’s been 23 years since that day on the seafloor, but Collier still feels the wonder of it. He’s followed the advent of mining with the luxury of less ambivalence than Van Dover. “I think it’s an awful idea,” he tells me.
For a while, Collier visited schools with a slideshow about the deep ocean, but it was years before he published a poem about his dive. The deep sea, he discovered, is as confounding for a poet as it is for a scientist — it is so bizarre, so other, so alien. “I felt this inadequacy, this essential inadequacy, about how to describe what I was seeing,” he says. “As if what you had to do was create the language for it.”