Is strip-mining the sea floor to fight climate change necessary? Let’s find out before it’s too late

Ocean floor samples containing nickel, cobalt and manganese nodules collected during environmental impact research.

Ocean floor samples containing nickel, cobalt and manganese nodules collected during environmental impact research.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times 2021

In director Jim Cameron’s original “Avatar” movie, a ruthless mining company has colonized the habitable moon Pandora to dig up its unobtanium, which, in engineering terms, refers to a singularly useful mineral or material that is impractically hard to access. Cameron’s hit sequel, “Avatar — The Way of the Water,” meanwhile, offers a paean to the beauties, wonders and mysteries of an ocean planet. Once again, Pandora is its setting.

A noted diver and ocean explorer, Cameron has modeled his fictional planet’s magic on our own ocean, including the last and largest untrammeled and largely unstudied ecosystem — the abyssal depths that cover 60% of the Earth.

The threats to Pandora’s ocean also resemble our own.

In 1977, the first global consortiums of mining companies formed to go after mineral-rich manganese nodules scattered across much of the deep ocean floor. The nodules form around a hard nucleus, such as a grain of sand or a shark’s tooth, accumulating minerals out of seawater and sediment over millions of years.

Given the limits of technology at the time, those nodules, shaped like walnuts cobbling the sea floor 2.5 to 3.5 miles down, turned out to be a form of unobtainium. Today, however, tech-driven corporations, such as the Metals Co. of Canada, are leading the way back into the deep — with massive mother ships that use 40-foot tank-tread robot collectors (essentially, underwater bulldozers) and thousands of feet of power cable, suction and riser systems. In November, the company conducted a test in the Pacific, recovering 4,500 tons of nodules.

In 1960, U.S. Navy Capt. Don Walsh was one of the first two humans to reach the deepest part of the ocean, called the “Challenger Deep,” along with Jacques Piccard. (Cameron used a submersible of his own design in 2012 to become the third).

I was curious to get Walsh’s thoughts on the expansion of mining into this rarified terrain.

“It’s kind of like clear-cutting the forest,” Walsh told me. “It doesn’t differentiate between the ore … and the things that live on the seafloor. And these are organisms that take thousands of years to populate an area.”

He’s not alone in this assessment.

More than 650 ocean scientists and policymakers have signed a letter urging the United Nations to hold off on licensing mining operations “that could result in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.”

The Metals Co. and others, meanwhile, argue that the process is a needed climate solution. Mining manganese nodules that are also rich in copper, nickel and cobalt could help enable the shift to battery-powered clean energy and electric vehicles.

“You’ve got to have a planetary perspective,” Metals Co. Chief Scientist Greg Stone told the “Water We Doing?” podcast.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

While the World Bank estimates there will be a 500% increase in demand for minerals such as lithium and cobalt by 2050, mostly for clean energy technologies, others argue that green technologies are advancing faster than the bank’s projections account for.

A 2022 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that this growing demand could be reduced 58% by 2050 through recycling, changes in battery chemistry to use fewer rare minerals and additional innovations.

Meanwhile, we don’t fully understand the role of the deep seafloor in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

“If you’re constantly stirring up sediments, there is a school of thought that says you may be reintroducing that carbon back into the water column — and then ultimately back into the atmosphere,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Rick Spinrad told me.

France and New Zealand have called for a ban on deep-sea mining until the world’s largest habitat is better understood. Corporate customers including Volkswagen, Google, Samsung, Philips, Volvo and BMW have pledged to keep deep sea minerals out of their electric cars and other products.

The United States also supports a delay. Deep sea mining “is not ready for prime time,” said Monica Medina, the U.S. undersecretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.

“There’s a lot of scientific research that still needs to be done about the impacts of this,” Medina said in an interview. “We know that it could be potentially very harmful to the marine environment because what happens in one place in the ocean doesn’t stay that way. Look at plastic pollution. It’s everywhere.”

These questions, however, haven’t slowed a burgeoning international extraction effort.

China and India, among other countries, are showing keen interest in quickly bringing mining operations to the planet’s last physical frontier. And the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority announced that, at the request of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, which has a contract with the Metals Co., it will begin issuing licenses for deep sea mining next year — whether environmental safety regulations have been established by then or not.

As “Avatar” protagonist Jake Sulley proclaims following a battle between colonial attackers chasing ocean riches and indigenous defenders of the marine environment: “We are sea people now. This is our home. This is our fortress. This is where we make our stand.”

If only!

David Helvarg is executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group, and co-host of “Rising Tide — The Ocean Podcast.”