Seabed Mining And Resilience To EXperimental impact

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Ocean and Earth Science

Abstract

Over a 6 million square km region of the central Pacific ocean, at abyssal depths of almost five thousand metres, lies a vast mineral resource in the form of small potato-sized deposits called polymetallic nodules. They are highly-enriched in metals of importance for industry, including the development of new sustainable technologies. Although the region lies in international waters, countries have now signed 16 exploration contracts with a UN-organised international regulator and the United Kingdom is sponsor to two of these, covering an area more than the size of England. It is a requirement of both the regulator and the sponsoring state to ensure that serious harm is avoided to the marine ecosystem in this region - a hitherto untouched deep-sea wilderness. Developing a sustainable approach to polymetallic nodule mining is a challenge as the nature and importance of the Pacific abyssal ecosystem is largely unknown, as are the capacity of the ecosystem to cope with and recover from mining impacts. Our project aims to provide the critical scientific understanding and evidence-base to reduce the risks of this industrial development, taking advantage of two new and unique opportunities to solve these problems in a single programme.

Firstly, the UK contractor that holds the UK-sponsored exploration contract (UK Seabed Resources) is planning a mining test in 2023, which will allow us to test the immediate impacts of a seabed mining vehicle for the first time. Secondly, as a partner in the first full-scale mining test done in 1979, they have been able to release new data on the location and results of a 40-year old large-scale mining operation. Our project team have secured access to data and test plans, to allow detailed experimental evaluation of impact and recovery from realistic mining disturbance on a decadal scale of vital relevance to understanding the long-term sustainability of deep-sea mining.

The project aims to better understand the ecosystem in the Pacific abyss and how the different components interact and interconnect. We will start by assessing the water and its dynamic flows over time and space. This complex physical environment will be monitored for a year to capture its variabilities, particularly "storm events" near the seabed. We will use this to make predictions about where the sediment plume generated by mining will be transported and settle back to the seafloor. We then assess the linkages between the water, sediment surface and sub sediments, evaluating the natural cycling of nutrients and metals that is important to maintain ecosystem health. The impacts of mining and recovery of these processes will be assessed. Mining will lead to changes in the structure of the seabed, its shape and the physical nature of the sediments, which will be mapped and linked to biological patterns. The biological processes that lead to these patterns will be assessed by detailing the life histories and reproduction of the organisms present and their connectivity between areas near and far, and then determining their role in maintaining structured communities of life, a high biodiversity and a functioning food web. We will then evaluate the functions in the ecosystem that these organisms provide, which help maintain a healthy ecosystem. The impact of mining and recovery of all these patterns and processes will be determined using our experimental areas to assess the biological and functional consequences of disturbance in the deep sea. These changes are likely complex, so a range of mathematical models will be used to better understand and predict the consequences of mining activities at larger time and space scales. Such predictive power, along with the evidence from the scientific assessment, will provide information that is critical for understanding and reducing the environmental risk of future mining activities.

Planned Impact

The SMARTEX project will deliver wider societal impact in several areas. Most importantly, we will develop improved greatly predictions of the effects of anthropogenic impacts in the deep sea. This will directly impact the policy decisions and the implementation of policy by both the sponsoring state - the UK government - and the international regulator, the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The UK has a responsibility for protection and preservation of the marine environment from mining activities. This will most likely be achieved through due diligence of the mining contractor's environmental impact assessment and approach for environmental monitoring. This requires robust independent scientific evidence of the sort provided by SMARTEX. Several UK government departments will coordinate these environmental responsibilities, but the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and their statutory advisor Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) will be central. In addition, the UK has a key role in the ISA as a longstanding member and a regular member of council (coordinated through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). This leadership role requires engagement in ISA activities, such as development of effective, evidence-based policy for deep-sea mining, which cannot be done effectively without knowledge on the environments being mined and the likely long term effects of mining operations. SMARTEX will thus contribute to the UK's international standing, and build capacity across the wide range of nations engaged in ISA discussions.

At a broader level, the improved interdisciplinary knowledge of ecosystems in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone collected by SMARTEX will also be important for regional management planning by the ISA. Coordination of multiple mining activities will require an indication of impact and recovery. The SMARTEX information on key factors, such as biodiversity, ecosystem structure, trophic dynamics, life histories and connectivity, will be important for the development and theoretical testing of proposed conservation strategies, particularly the implementation of marine protected areas.

The planned work will have important implications for the developing deep-sea mining industry itself. Deep-sea mining contractors, including the UK-sponsored company UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL; a partner in this project), need to carefully plan their operations to minimise their environmental impacts. Evidence and experience from this project will directly feed into environmental risk assessment, monitoring planning and mitigation actions carried out by all deep-sea mining contractors. Although UKSRL will have to carry out an independent environmental impact assessment, they will benefit from additional information from their licence area and scientific evaluation of ecosystem impact and recovery collected by SMARTEX. The project will, however, act independently of UKSRL.

Complementary to seabed mining policy, we will also impact the debate on marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) that have been the focus of recent international negotiations. Knowledge of the nature and extent of marine genetic resources in ABNJ, such as that collected by the project, will be important in informing these debates. Genetic data collected by this project will be archived and accessible alongside specimens and metadata, facilitating assessment and development of potentially valuable or useful marine genetic resources.

The development of seabed mining requires greater public awareness of our deep-sea regions, and SMARTEX will includes a programme of public engagement activities, targeting both the general public and the next generation of marine scientists. The public will benefit from having greater awareness and more evidence on the impacts of mining to inform debate.

Publications

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