HONOLULU -- Last summer, a team of Japanese scientists boarded the University of Hawaii’s Kaimikai O Kanaloa, a 223-foot, high-tech research ship docked in Honolulu Harbor, and headed out to sea.
Their mission was to explore whether they will be able to tap into billions of dollars worth of coveted minerals that are believed to sit 5,000 meters beneath the sea in an area that runs from about 500 miles southeast of Hawaii toward Mexico.
Japan is one of more than a dozen countries angling to profit off the vast mineral deposits that span 6 million square kilometers — an area the size of the United States — in what's known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone.
Such deep sea mineral mining would be unprecedented. But as land-based deposits of high-value minerals are depleted, causing prices to rise, tapping into a vast well of underwater resources is becoming more plausible.
“This mining, when it occurs, is going to be just massive in scale. It probably will have the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet,” said Craig Smith, a UH oceanographer.
Hawaii is particularly well situated to take advantage of the undersea bounty. International teams of mineral prospectors are making Honolulu Harbor a departure point for their expeditions into the area.
The University of Hawaii has already earned millions of dollars by leasing out research vessels for prospecting trips by international teams, some of which are looking for their piece of a massive mineral rush.
But even as the university is profiting from burgeoning interest, UH professors are working on a framework to ensure that it does not become a Wild West for out-of-control corporate prospectors.
Smith has led a group of local scientists and international marine experts in developing a conservation plan that puts a quarter of the area entirely off-limits.
The team’s environmental framework has already been adopted as a stop-gap measure by the International Seabed Authority, an organization formed by the United Nations in 1982 that divvies up mineral resources in international waters.
The authority, whose headquarters is in Jamaica, is preparing permanent mining regulations that would apply to the zone, but they won't be ready for several years.
Smith hopes that the recent publication of his team’s work in the peer-reviewed biological sciences journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, will help convince the agency to make those recommendations permanent.
“Usually humans realize they have totally trashed things and then realize they need to do something to correct it,” Smith said.
This time, he said, “We are trying to close the barn doors before the cows have escaped."
In waters deep below the surface, potato-sized manganese nodule rock formations lay amid the sea floor’s sediment, discovered as far back as the 1870s during the British Challenger Expedition and detailed more extensively by scientists beginning in the 1960s.
They look like many black rocks, but the nodules are deposits formed millions of years ago. They are rich in metals, including nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements with tongue-twisting names like praseodymium, ytterbium and neodymium.
These minerals are crucial materials necessary for the making of cell phones, computers, and construction materials, not to mention a host of common household appliances.
Beyond mega markets for such products in the United States, Japan, Europe and elsewhere, Charles Morgan, an environmental planner at Planning Solutions in Honolulu, said that fast-developing nations such as Brazil, China, Indonesia and Russia are clamoring to satisfy their own growing consumer appetites. The result is a sharp increase in demand for the minerals.
Morgan is a consultant for Lockheed Martin, which is among the companies exploring the mineral deposits.
“These countries are all joining the developed world and as a result building buildings, cars and using a lot of metals,” he said.
Sizable land-based deposits of common minerals are becoming increasingly hard to detect and reach. “Sulfides, the big deposits, have been largely depleted, and the high concentrations of nickel aren’t found anymore,” said Morgan.
Companies have been looking to less desirable nickel found in laterites, thin layers of red soil produced by rock decay found in rain forests. But to reach the deposits, companies have to strip-mine large areas, causing extensive environmental damage, he said.
Rare earth elements, 95 percent of which now come from China, have also caused countries to fret about access to these minerals that are used in advanced technologies, including wind turbines, computer hard drives and hybrid vehicles.
Difficulties in finding easy-to-reach mineral deposits, the increasing prices, and improvements in underwater mining technology developed by the oil industry are intensifying international interest in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone.
Japan, Great Britain, Russia, South Korea, China, France, Germany, Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, Belgium and a consortium that includes Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia have all received permits from the International Seabed Authority to explore the zone. (The United States is not a party to the exploration because it refused to sign the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that created the seabed authority.)
Companies have already invested tens of millions of dollars in sonar and photography to map the ocean floor and tested sediment and nodules for mineral composition, but it remains uncertain whether extracting the trove from the deep sea will make financial sense.
“It is certainly highly risky at this point,” said Morgan. “The regulations may be too onerous. It could make it impossible. It could be the environmental requirements make it too expensive.”
Companies will need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more to determine the mineral yields that can be extracted from the deposits, said Morgan, and they are waiting to see what types of rules and restrictions the seabed authority might place on the mining.
But if all goes well, mining could begin in five years, according to Smith.
Life in a No Man’s Land
The deepest ocean offers an abundance of unique sea life, from bioluminescent firefly squid and lanternfish to sixgill sharks and gulper eels with cavernous mouths.
“There are all these fantastic creatures that have these really unique characteristics that live in this extreme environment with no light, that’s absolutely freezing and under giant pressure,” said Jack Kittinger, a science advisor for Conservation International’s Hawaii Fish Trust program and fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, who assisted with Smith’s research.
But there is much that scientists still don’t know about the deep ocean or about the effect that dredging up massive amounts of minerals from the sea floor will have on the broader marine ecosystem.
“The deep sea is the most prevalent ecosystem on the planet, but people know very little about it because it’s so big and it’s expensive to explore,” said Kittinger.
But Smith and Kittinger say that they know enough to conclude that large-scale mineral mining could threaten a huge number of species and even affect fisheries that humans count on for food.
“It could impact thousands of species, including deep sea fish, cucumbers, worms and crustaceans,” said Smith. “These are systems that are characterized by high biodiversity.”
Using complex mapping and productivity models, Smith and his team set up nine marine protected areas based on estimates of biodiversity and the abundance of life, which they hope the seabed authority will place permanently off-limits to mining.
Ironically, as UH scientists work to pressure the seabed authority, which is effectively a gatekeeper for the deep sea’s resources, to implement permanent protections, the university continues to facilitate foreign mineral prospecting.
UH has taken in more than $3 million in recent years by renting out its two research vessels to foreign explorers. Future excursions have already been lined up, as well. The university’s ships rent for up to $40,000 per day, according to Sandy Shor, the associate dean for research at UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.
The Japanese contract alone, which was for a 54-day trip, brought in $1.4 million, university documents indicate.
“Our primary purpose is not to support Japanese resource exploration,” Shor said.
But with limited funding from the federal government for the department’s oceanographic research, the he noted that the funds from mineral exploration help further UH’s marine research.
“Honestly we have been quite fortunate to be well positioned to work with them,” he said. “They have been superb to work with.”