Mind this deep sea mining
It has been announced that deep sea mining is scheduled to start in Jamaican waters soon. There are some muted expressions of concern from the usual quarters. And with good reason.
Earth’s mass is 6.6 sextillion tonnes. Its volume is about 260 billion cubic miles. The total surface of the Earth is about 197 million square miles. About 71 per cent of our planet is covered by water and just 29 per cent by land. Only three per cent of this water is fresh water.
The highest point in the world is Mount Everest at 29,035 feet. The Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth. It is 36,201 feet deep. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the peak would still be 7,000 feet below sea level. This should give some idea of the vastness of the oceans.
The deep sea contains some of the most pristine ecosystems of our planet and plays a crucial role in regulating climate. There is an increasing demand for ocean minerals as commodity prices are going through the roof. New and innovative technology are making increasing demands for minerals, like zinc, cobalt, and copper.
The World Bank estimates that more than three billion tonnes of minerals will be needed by 2050 to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less. The production of battery metals such as lithium and cobalt alone will have to increase by nearly 500 per cent by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies, such as wind, solar, and geothermal power.
The 26th annual session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was attended by 30 of the world’s top scientists and legal experts. The primary concern of the participants was: How can we sustainably develop marine mineral resources whilst ensuring protection of the environment and biodiversity? All well-thinking individuals with a sense of history will be asking the same question.
The National Oceanic Administrative Association (NOAA) had this to say about the impact of deep sea mining on the ecosystems and habitats of the deep:
1)Deep sea mining is still in the experimental stage and impacts on the deep sea ecosystems remain unknown. But existing information has led scientists to warn that biodiversity loss will be inevitable, and most likely irreversible.
2) On the abyssal plains (underwater plains between 3,000-6,000 feet deep), sucking up nodules would involve destruction of the seabed leading to the potential extinction of species. The nodules themselves support complex ecosystems which would be lost. Each mining operation would effectively strip mine 8,000-9,000 square kilometres of deep ocean seabed over a 30-year mining licence period.
3) Stripping sea mounts of the outer layer of crusts containing cobalt and other metals would destroy deep sea sponge and coral ecosystems that are likely to have taken thousands of years to grow.
4) Mining hydrothermal vents would destroy vent habitats and kill the associated organisms before the biodiversity of these unique and fragile ecosystems is well understood, also the direct and immediate impact on the deep sea ecosystems actually mined.
5) Sediment plumes will be created as mining stirs up the sea floor, possibly spreading tens of thousands of square kilometres beyond the mining sites. The effect this will have on filter feeders like coral and sponges is unknown. Waste water containing sediments and other mining residue pumped back into the ocean would also form plumes, which may travel hundreds of kilometres or further and create water cloudiness, impacting species that use bioluminescence to hunt and find mates.
6) Noise, light pollution, and sediment plumes could seriously impact species, such as whales, that use noise, echolocation or bioluminescence to communicate, find prey, and escape predators.
Terrestrial mining has left large parts of Africa looking like a wasteland. In Jamaica, the bauxite industry has never been credibly and consistently monitored. Natural bauxite ore contains aluminium hydroxide, iron oxide, titanium oxide, and reactive silica. These all have a potentially devastating effect on both animal and plant life. These include liver and lung damage, chronic brain syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, eczema, and heart problems.
Jamaica ranks fifth among the world’s islands in terms of endemic life. There are 28 species of birds, 830 flowering plants, 82 ferns, 27 reptiles, 21 amphibians, and 500 land snails, bats, and butterflies that are only found in Jamaica. The indiscriminate removal of top soil has destroyed untold quantities of these before we were able to study them.
Residents of Kent Village along the Rio Cobre have a sad story to tell about the destruction of all forms of life in the river, which provided a livelihood for them for generations. The Rio Cobre is now a graveyard.
First World countries, which gained that sobriquet by gaining untold wealth through the colonial experience which impoverished much of the rest of the world, are now exploring new ways of maintaining the lifestyle colonialism afforded them. We have bought the myth that their way of life is how success is to be measured. Responsible terrestrial mining and the development of a sustainable pharmaceutical industry based on our endemic gifts is largely behind us because of mining practices.
I have been asked why I continue to use Singapore and the Cayman Islands as yardsticks when commenting on Jamaica’s development. I make no apologies and will explain why. In 1962, when we gained our Independence, President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was packing his bags to head to Jamaica. His country was plagued by corruption, housing shortages, and unemployment and Jamaica seemed to be the ideal country from which he could get helpful ideas. the Cayman Islands were administered by us. They had no tertiary institutions. A headline in the New York Times — ‘The Islands Time Forgot’ — adequately explains their condition.
Today, with no direct taxation, the Caymans are a thriving offshore financial centre. More than 65 companies are registered in the Cayman Islands as of 2017, including more than 280 banks, 700 insurers, and 10,500 mutual funds. Although more than 90 per cent of consumer goods must be imported, Caymanians enjoy a standard of living comparable to Switzerland.
Foremost on the mind of President Kuan Yew as he headed to Jamaica in the early 1960s was his country’s record low gross domestic product (GDP) of $US0.70 billion. Well, last year that country’s GDP reached an all-time high of $US396.99 billion. Singapore is now a high-income economy with a gross national income of US$54,530 per capita as of 2017. The country provides one of the world’s most business-friendly regulatory environments for local entrepreneurs and is ranked among the world’s most competitive economies. Not bad for a country the size of St James that has to import almost everything, including water.
But, as far as Jamaica is concerned, those ships have already sailed. The last frontier for us is what the sea has to offer. Permit me to point out to our leaders that Papua New Guinea has already lost over US$100 million of its investment in deep sea mining in its national waters. The Government is now concerned about the environmental implications of deep sea mining, and in 2019 called for a moratorium on deep sea mining in its own waters. Fiji and Vanuatu have also decided to follow.
When bauxite mining started in Jamaica, those in charge can be forgiven for not knowning anything about the ore, times have changed. Before we start deep sea mining, the entire population should be made aware of what it entails. Marine sciences should be taught in all institutions. Our citizens must be qualified to participate in the process. Foreigners should no longer be coming here to do things for us, but with us.
The most direct impact at mining sites are destruction of natural land forms and the wildlife they host, compaction of the sea floor, and creation of sediment plumes that disrupt aquatic life. The plumes disrupt the natural movement of ocean water, potentially smothering entire ecological communities on the seabed.
I am urging our leaders to give careful thought to this move.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.