Undersea Mining: A Gold Rush in the Abyss
Tom Dettweiler makes his living miles down. He helped find the Titanic. After that, his teams located a lost submarine heavy with gold. In all, he has cast light on dozens of vanished ships.
Dettweiler has now turned from recovering lost treasures to prospecting for natural ones that litter the seabed: craggy deposits rich in gold and silver, copper and cobalt, lead and zinc. A new understanding of marine geology has led to the discovery of hundreds of these unexpected ore bodies, known as massive sulfides because of their sulfurous nature.
These finds are fueling a gold rush as nations, companies and entrepreneurs race to stake claims to the sulfide-rich areas, which dot the volcanic springs of the frigid seabed. The prospectors — motivated by dwindling resources on land as well as record prices for gold and other metals — are busy hauling up samples and assessing deposits valued at trillions of dollars.
“We’ve had extreme success,” Dettweiler said in a recent interview about the deepwater efforts of his company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla.
Skeptics once likened mining the deep to looking for riches on the moon. No more. Progress in marine geology, predictions of metal shortages in the decades ahead and improving access to the abyss are combining to make it real.
Environmentalists have expressed growing alarm, saying too little research has been done on the risks of seabed mining. The industry has responded with studies, reassurance and upbeat conferences.
The technological advances center on new robots, sensors and other equipment, some of it derived from the offshore oil and gas industry. Ships lower exploratory gear on long tethers and send down sharp drills that gnaw into the rocky seabed. All of this underwater machinery is making it more and more feasible to find, map and recover seabed riches.
Industrial powers — including government-supported groups in China, Japan and South Korea — are hunting for sulfides in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. And private companies like Odyssey have made hundreds of deep assessments and claims in the volcanic zones around Pacific island nations: Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
The International Seabed Authority, a sleepy United Nations body located in Jamaica that presides over mineral rights on the high seas, an area its officials like to characterize as 51 percent of the earth’s surface, has found itself besieged with sulfide queries.
“We are entering a new stage,” Nii Allotey Odunton of Ghana, secretary general of the authority, told a meeting in November.