We have higher resolution maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the bottom of the oceans. Despite the fact that our planet’s watery veil has prevented us from seeing into the depths, there are now plans to dive down deep and start mining for valuable metals. A new expedition has set off from the UK to look into the feasibility of such a project and the harms it might bring to the fragile deep-sea ecosystems.
It is thought that the hydrothermal vents that produce geothermally heated water thousands of meters under the surface also form vast deposits of valuable metals – from gold to tellurium. In an age driven by technologies that rely on these metals for everything from smartphones to airplanes, these vast deposits could be worth billions of dollars. Yet the technological difficulties of getting to mine them are monumental.
“The challenges posed by deep sea exploration are similar in scale to space exploration,” explains Dr Bramley Murton, who is leading the expedition by the National Oceanography Centre, in a statement. “The technology that allows us to reach these hidden worlds is vital to our understanding of them. The deep-seafloor we will be exploring during our expedition is an extreme environment of intense-pressure and eternal darkness hiding a rugged landscape akin to a combination of the grand-canyon and monument valley 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) beneath the waves.”
The expedition aims to assess the viability of mining at deep-sea vents in the mid-Atlantic rift. They will use remotely operated vehicles to explore between volcanoes, along 20-meter (65 feet) cliffs, and around chimney stacks, as well as drill up to 55 meters (180 feet) below the sea bed to examine vent deposits. One of the key questions they will try to answer is how the metal thought to exist there has been affected by the salt water. But what exactly they will find remains a mystery.
It is exactly this lack of knowledge of the depths of the oceans that has many researchers worried. Is mining in these environments going to destroy them before science has even had a chance to explore and document the life that calls the dark depths home? The current expedition hopes to avoid this tricky question by exploring vents that have been extinct for thousands of years, and thus is not home to any life, but that is unlikely to stop many private companies from doing otherwise.
It is hoped that by improving our understanding of these deposits, it could help improve mining techniques, and thus help preserve these ecosystems.
Main image: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr CC BY 2.0