Thousands of new creatures discovered in deep-sea mining area
CLIMATEWIRE | A huge, mineral-rich region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is drawing significant international interest due to its potential for deep-sea mining, including minerals essential for renewable energy technology. But scientists warn that the risks to biodiversity may be greater than previously thought.
New research finds that the area is home to thousands of different marine species, most of them new to science. Furthermore, the region has been relatively understudied so far, which means that there are likely many more species yet to be discovered.
The new article, published Thursday in the magazine current biology, provides the first comprehensive “checklist” of species known to exist in the CCZ. The document synthesizes more than 100,000 records drawn from previous research expeditions to the region over the years. It focuses specifically on benthic metazoans, multicellular animals that live on the ocean floor.
The study finds that a total of 5,580 species have been observed in the area. Of these, 5,142 are new species that have not yet been formally named and described. Scientists know they exist, but don’t know much about them.
Of the species known to scientists, the study finds that only six have been observed in other regions of the ocean.
And scientists are likely to keep discovering new species the more they study the region. Much remains to be done in the CCZ, the researchers noted in the study. And “species are accumulating rapidly with ever larger samples,” they added.
The study raises new concerns about the potential consequences of deep-sea mining in the CCZ.
“We are on the eve of potentially some of the largest deep-sea mining operations being approved,” study co-author Adrian Glover, a researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, said in a statement. “It is imperative that we work with companies seeking to exploit these resources to ensure that such activity is conducted in a way that limits its impact on the natural world.”
The CCZ encompasses approximately 2 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. It has attracted international attention due to its high volume of mineral deposits. The seafloor is littered with small, potato-sized, rock-like “nodules” rich in minerals such as cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper and zinc.
An intergovernmental body known as the International Seabed Authority is responsible for setting the rules for mining and approving contracts in the CCZ. So far, the ISA has awarded 31 exploration contracts to countries and companies that allow them to evaluate potential mining opportunities in the region.
As of now, no deep sea mining is taking place in the CCZ. The ISA will begin accepting mining applications this July, even though it has yet to agree on industry rules for mining in the region. But it’s still unclear when exactly mining in the region can start or if the rules will be in place before that happens.
Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it is an essential way to secure minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy technologies. Currently, these minerals mainly come from terrestrial locations around the world, where they are often linked to human rights abuses.
But the prospect of an expansion of deep-sea mining has raised alarm bells among activists and some of the ISA’s member nations, who are concerned about the potential damage to biodiversity and marine ecosystems.
The CCZ’s mineral-rich nodules rest on the seafloor, making them relatively easy to recover. But critics argue that the use of underwater vehicles to collect the nodules can still crush or disturb marine animals on the ocean floor and kick up plumes of sediment, potentially laden with toxic heavy metals, which can then spread throughout the ocean. Water.
In 2021, hundreds of marine scientists and policy experts signed an open letter calling for a pause on deep-sea mining. In the same year, member states belonging to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as environmentalists and other activists, voted in favor of a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
Many scientists, activists and countries have called for caution until researchers better understand the implications for biodiversity in the deep sea, where marine ecosystems are often not yet well understood.
The new CCZ species checklist provides a “starting point” for such future studies, the researchers said in the study.
“Robust data and understanding are essential to shed light on this unique region and ensure its future protection against human impacts,” they said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.