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Diving deep to discover & conserve ocean resources


For a child, there is little more wondrous than nature, than digging through rich soil or turning over a hefty rock just to see what is under it and finding strange, unfamiliar life, creatures with many legs or none at all, pale and fragile or dark and armored. 

This summer, marine scientists aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s new research vessel Falkor (too) captured that same sense of wonder. Thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, in pitch darkness, surrounded by hydrothermal vents spewing up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (over 370 degrees Celsius) plumes of water, scientists used a remotely operated underwater robot to overturn chunks of volcanic crust atop the seafloor.

Underneath, they found something unprecedented: an entirely new ecosystem of sinewy baby tubeworms and small snails that thrive on chemicals instead of light, all living in much cooler vent fluid. While scientists have spent more than four decades studying life above and around hydrothermal vents, this was the first expedition to use an experimental process for removing the seafloor for a look below. 

The potential for discovery in the deep—of new life forms, clues to how life on Earth began, organisms that could be used for new medicines—is incalculable. In this Ocean Decade, it is essential for the marine science community to preserve, and pursue that sense of possibility, and to continue to approach the Ocean with wonder—even and especially as other interests that view the Ocean floor as a new source of minerals seek to turn the deep into a vast underwater mining operation.

In just the first six months after launching Schmidt Ocean Institute’s new research vessel, Falkor (too), scientists have discovered four new hydrothermal vent fields on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos Islands, several potential new species of coral in Puerto Rican waters, and an octopus nursery off the coast of Costa Rica—one of only a handful of such nurseries ever found.   

While scientists on Falkor (too) were making discoveries across the seafloor, the International Seabed Authority was debating handing that same rich, unknown terrain to ocean mining companies. These eager extractivists want to plumb the ocean for its small, potatoey knobs of copper, cobalt and other minerals used to produce batteries required for the renewable energy transition. 

Deep-sea mining remains a distant concern for those not in the Ocean research community. To friends, family and broader networks not attuned to the issue, we can paint a vivid picture of why mining has the potential to be damaging: companies send mammoth robotic vehicles, outfitted with spiked wheels and powerful suction tubes, thousands of meters underwater. Once minerals are extracted, the machinery dumps wastewater, sediment and all the other disruptive outputs of the mining process back into the water, damaging seafloor habitats and the life within them. From seafloor and ship-based discharges, plumes spread and pollute the water column even further afield, suffocating and imperiling ocean life. 

This is something like vacuuming your home, digging a lost toy out of the vacuum bag and then dumping all of the bag’s dust, hair and crumbs back into your carpet—except in this case, you don’t know what that debris will do to your home or your lungs. 

So far, no innovation has come along to reduce or supplant the need for these minerals, a cruel irony considering that transitioning to renewable energy is absolutely essential to protect our planet from the worst ravages of global warming. But we can’t protect our planet by destroying it. 

And while the ISA didn’t go as far as outright opposing deep-sea mining—as did many governments worldwide, companies like Samsung, BMW, Google and hundreds of scientists—the organization did provide the Ocean something of a reprieve by announcing in July that no mining permits would be issued until mining regulations are finalized, likely sometime in 2025. 

This moment marks a profound and rare opportunity when it comes to environmental protection. Rather than learning the gravest impacts of resource extraction years or decades into the process—indeed, we’re still learning how devastating terrestrial mining can be—for the deep sea, we can look before we leap. 

All of us at Schmidt Ocean Institute plan to keep looking, deeply and with awe, at our Ocean. We have so much yet to discover: new species, compounds that can treat disease or even cure the next pandemic, and insight into how life began and how it might regenerate. The ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean have developed over the same time periods as the minerals within them—up to millions of years—and damage to them may be irreversible. The same is true for all the marine life that might suffer, right up to the fisheries that contribute $1.5 trillion annually to the global economy and provide protein for 3 billion people. 

And though marine scientists focus primarily on all that’s underwater, all those who advocate for the Ocean can use this moment to continue to support scientific exploration and research, fight against deep-sea mining and expand our knowledge about this ecosystem and the ways in which it connects to planetary and human health. We can examine other ways to address the need for renewable energy, like expanding and electrifying mass transit, sourcing minerals responsibly, reclaiming minerals and collecting batteries for reuse. Indeed, leaving aside the opportunity for innovation, with existing methods, recycling dead batteries alone could reduce global demand for electric car minerals—by 55% for newly mined copper, 25% for lithium and 35% for cobalt and nickel—by 2040. The stakes aren’t just high—they’re existential, for the ocean and for all life on Earth. 

As Schmidt Ocean Institute explores the Galapagos this fall with three consecutive expeditions, more vents, corals and other findings will surely be uncovered. Returning to the place where marine scientists first found evidence of hydrothermal vents emphasizes just how far we’ve come. We now know that there are hundreds of hydrothermal vent fields across all five Ocean basins, that they support unique marine organisms that thrive off chemicals rather than light, that they may hold the key to how life on Earth began. 

And yet, even after over 45 years of  progress in investigating these unique ecosystems. There are likely hundreds more active vent fields to be found, thousands more species to discover, and countless insights to gain. 


Wendy Schmidt is president and co-founder with her husband Eric of Schmidt Ocean Institute and the Schmidt Family Foundation.