Ancient rocks lie across vast fields miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Far from people, but not entirely out of reach, they contain metals such as cobalt, used in batteries for technology like electric cars. They are numerous, about the size of meatballs or potatoes, and formed over millions of years.
These stones may hold a key to fighting climate change, according to a contingent of entrepreneurs who want to mine them. To wean the world off fossil fuels that worsen global warming, scientists say, will require a lot of batteries. That’s where the rocks could help.
But nothing is so simple in the abyss.
Opponents argue that rushing into deep-sea mining risks destroying a pristine wilderness, killing species that have lived free of human intrusion for millennia. They say miners would disrupt a habitat that might hold other value for society, potentially home to microbes that fight diseases and untouched sediments that have trapped carbon pollution.
The University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science is now jumping into this murky debate. The St. Petersburg-based school announced last month that it is the new home of the International Marine Minerals Society, providing staff support and a fixed address, and helping organize an annual research conference. The Society’s goals are to improve understanding of the field and “to encourage the prudent development of marine mineral resources.”
Professors hope to draw funding for research and expand course offerings about marine minerals. The Society is supposed to fund a future graduate fellowship for an international student at USF.
The university calls the debate a “green conundrum,” with people on both sides touting a commitment to nature.
USF sees an opportunity to deploy expertise honed over a decade of studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, mapping sea floors and measuring ocean currents. Unlike with drilling, which “just went ahead without any background research,” mining offers a chance to share guidance before the industry takes off, said oceanography professor Mark Luther.
“We want all the science done up front,” he said. “And to not find out about what’s going on only after a major disaster.”
* * *
Three approaches hold potential for deep-sea mining. One involves pulling materials from underwater mountains. Another would harness minerals found near vents like hot springs. The last focuses on collecting the rocks, which scientists call nodules.
For now, industry hopefuls pay most attention to these deep-sea stones. The rocks hold cobalt, copper, nickel, manganese and other rare earth minerals, some of which are critical components in lithium ion batteries that power devices from cell phones to cars. The batteries could offer a way to harness energy from solar panels and wind turbines.
A prodigious supply of rocks lies between roughly Australia and Mexico. Known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone, the area covers 1.7 million square miles — about 30 Floridas — and reaches depths up to 18,000 feet.
Considered the “common heritage of mankind,” the territory is regulated by a subgroup of the United Nations called the International Seabed Authority. The Seabed Authority has not yet allowed mineral extraction but has granted 30 permits for exploring the sea; more than half of those deal with nodules, involving contractors sponsored by countries including Russia, China, Belgium and Japan.
Luther said the rocks are “ready for production,” but the Seabed Authority is still working out regulations to govern the mining. Metals found in batteries exist on land as well, but those mines tend to have poor environmental track records. In the case of cobalt, the prime source is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where operators have abused child labor. Plus, deep-sea mineral proponents say, metals on land won’t meet future demand.
“We want to get away from fossil fuels,” Luther said. “But to do it, we’ve got to disturb some of the seabed.”
Interest in the field is hardly new. The International Marine Minerals Society’s conference goes back 49 years, members said; the group was based in Hawaii before moving to USF. But exploring the deep sea is difficult and expensive, the science behind it complicated and slow. Advancements in technology and growing concern over climate change have provided a new cause for urgency.
The group’s most recent president, Greg Stemm, has history in Tampa Bay as a former leader of Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company that plumbed the ocean for shipwrecks but has moved on to minerals.
Now helming another minerals company, he wrote in an email from the Cook Islands that the world will need metals to transition to renewable energy, though he believes further environmental research will show “we simply shouldn’t be mining the ocean floor except in very exceptional circumstances.”
“As responsible citizens of the world, we need to look at every potential source of those minerals and decide which causes the least harm to the environment, and is the most sustainable,” Stemm wrote.
* * *
The deep ocean, popularly misconceived as a dark, barren expanse, teems with life.
Sea cucumbers grow more than a foot long, lime green, red and yellow, said Craig Smith, an oceanography professor at the University of Hawai’i. Shrimp reach up to a foot themselves, living amid sea slugs and worms. There is much more — about bacteria, animals and chemistry — that people do not know.
“They’re the largest areas of wilderness we have left,” Smith said. “These are probably the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet to mining disturbance.”
Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group, is calling for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mineral extraction, until researchers can study the ecosystem further.
“We strongly support renewable energy and low-impact devices and long-term batteries,” said Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner with the organization. “The problem is the sourcing.”
Skeptics of the industry believe it is better to focus on improving mining conditions on land. They say new battery designs, increased recycling and added land mining could negate the need for metals from the ocean. Others, including Luther and Stemm, say that idea is unrealistic because the world would need more material before recycling becomes viable.
Everyone agrees that mining will cause a disruption.
Robots would drop to the bottom, sucking and stirring up sediment that would blot the water. Plumes of sand could eventually fall back, burying animals and their habitats.
When Smith and other scientists sample the deep ocean, he said, they often bring up as many as 100 new species at a time.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called pitting renewable energy against habitat protection a “false dichotomy.”
“There has to be a way to do it in a way that benefits the biodiversity now and the biodiversity that’s hopefully going to be here 100 years now,” she said.
Nodules take so long to form that researchers say it will be difficult to restore the environment once it is upturned.
“If we mess it up, I don’t think we can fix it,” said Cindy Lee Van Dover, a deep-sea biologist at Duke University.
The lack of knowledge, scientists say, is the biggest hurdle to responsible mining. USF researchers want to fill some of those gaps. Luther has a background in tracking ocean currents and could study the plumes, in search of ways to minimize harm.
Smith, of the University of Hawai’i, said he is not opposed to the industry entirely. People eat fish, he said, even though he does not believe any scientists would argue commercial fishing is great for nature. Research can help weigh the benefits and risks.
“It’s clear that deep-sea mining will be bad for the ocean, but it’s a trade-off,” he said. “Just because people can’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s fine to trash it.”
* * *
Ocean mining on some level has already arrived.
Miners pull diamonds off the coast of Africa. In the United States, underwater operations bring up sediment to build out beaches and wetlands, including near Florida. The mineral-laden rocks are not thought to exist here, but Luther sees a future for offshore phosphate mining, an expansion of the state’s fertilizer industry.
He believes an independent body should maintain and publish deep-sea minerals data and hopes the university can have a role.
Outside international waters, nations like Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands are exploring mining in potentially rich seabeds under their control.
The United States has not signed onto a key United Nations convention on the law of the seas, leaving it as just an observer to the International Seabed Authority’s work. President Donald Trump directed the agency that oversees offshore oil leasing to identify areas with possible mineral deposits around American waters, citing the country’s dependence on foreign resources.
James Hein, a past International Marine Minerals Society leader, studied the deep sea for four decades before retiring recently from the United States Geological Survey.
“Any time you do anything to the surface of the earth, you’re going to destroy ecology,” he said. But he believes the industry is inevitable. “I’m not an advocate for deep ocean mining, I’m just a realist.”
Heim remembers the first time he was directed to study nodules. It was the 1970s.
“I thought when I started it’d all be simple,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.