We already know the damage that mining can cause on land. It could be devastating to the deep sea.
Thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, so deep that sunlight can’t penetrate, magma seeping through the Earth’s crust mixes with cold saltwater and creates a chemical reaction. The resulting hydrothermal vent spews water at temperatures upwards of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Surrounding the vent—and other underwater landscapes—are small knobs containing copper, cobalt and other minerals precious for renewable energy batteries.
This spring, scientists embarked on a search for new underwater formations aboard the Falkor (too), a research vessel operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which one of us co-founded. Zooming in on three newly discovered hydrothermal vent fields with an underwater robot, the scientists found something unexpected.
As the robot shone a light along the vents belching black mineral-rich plumes, it revealed thousands of tiny wriggling shrimp in this inhospitable environment. The potential for discovery in the deep—of new life forms, of clues to how life on Earth began, of organisms that could be used for new medicines—is incalculable.
It’s a cruel irony that renewable energy, at least at this point of technological development, is thought to require nonrenewable deep-sea minerals, pulled from ecosystems we know so little about. But we can’t protect our planet by destroying it, nor can we mine our way out of the climate crisis.
Last week, a little-known autonomous global body, the International Seabed Authority council, opted to delay the start of large-scale commercial ocean mining likely until 2025 amid growing opposition from world leaders, ocean advocates and marine scientists worldwide.
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, we now have the opportunity to look before we leap.
During this pause we need to pursue three goals for human and planetary health: scientific exploration and research; continued pressure on land-based mining companies to clean up their act; and innovation to answer our connectivity, mobility and energy needs in more sustainable ways.
Deep-sea mining might seem, initially, like a distant concern. But consider the process: mining 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 the equivalent of vacuuming your rug, rescuing a lost earring from the canister, and then dumping all the collected debris back on to the rug and into the air in the room—except, in this case, you can only guess at how badly the debris will damage your rug, your home or your family.
There has to be a better way—for the safety of our ocean, our planet and ourselves. It starts with research, from basic science to understanding the full scale of potential mining impacts. We have so much yet to discover on the seafloor: 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.
We already know the damage mining can cause on land, and yet we’re still mining. Before even considering digging up the ocean, we should continue to pressure the mining industry to clean up its act on land.
Perhaps the most challenging step we must take is to reduce demand. Renewable energy manufacturers and innovators should design their products with responsibly sourced minerals and with an eye to reclaiming minerals and collecting batteries for reuse. 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.
We have to think outside the sedan. Simply replacing gas-powered cars with electric vehicles on a one-to-one basis could mean an impossible demand for minerals. Electrifying mass transit, telecommuting and other solutions can ease the global burden—particularly if industry, governments and all of us consider this an opportunity to creatively and completely reimagine transportation and decarbonization more broadly.
The stakes aren’t just high—they’re existential, for the ocean and for all life on Earth. We need to move quickly toward a renewable energy future, but let’s not mortgage the ocean to pay for it.
Wendy Schmidt is president and co-founder with her husband, Eric, of the Schmidt Family Foundation and Schmidt Ocean Institute. The couple also founded Schmidt Futures.
Kristina Gjerde is senior high seas adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Ocean Team and a member of the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s advisory board.