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How interest in the deep sea is resurfacing

What is at stake for deep-sea mining?

Anaïs Marechal, science journalist
On June 8th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Florian Besson
Florian Besson
Geological Engineer at Ifremer
Key takeaways
  • The deep sea begins, scientifically, around 2,000m deep and represents nearly 56% of the oceans. But is in geopolitical terms, it is anything over 200m.
  • We know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the bottom of our oceans. The best existing global bathymetric map has a resolution of about 500 metres, compared to 1.5 metres on the Moon.
  • The deep seabed is attractive because of the resources it possesses. However, the framework for mining these seabeds is unclear and regulations must be in place before any exploitation can begin.
  • France has recently adopted a military strategy to control the seabed, in particular to protect the many underwater communication cables and the resources and biodiversity.

The term “deep sea” brings to mind the adven­tures of Cap­tain Nemo aboard Jules Verne’s Nau­tilus… Since then, we have learned a lit­tle more about these envi­ron­ments – imag­ine vast expans­es that rep­re­sent 56% of the total sur­face of the ocean. For sci­en­tists, the deep sea gen­er­al­ly begins at a depth of more than 2,000 metres. But the geopo­lit­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion is dif­fer­ent in that the deep sea begins at the end of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf – clos­er to the con­ti­nents – at depths of over 200 metres. For the rest of the arti­cle, we will refer to the lat­ter definition.

Dark blue water

If you look at a satel­lite view of the Earth, you can iden­ti­fy the deep sea at first glance. It is the dark blue water because, at these depths, light does not pen­e­trate. How­ev­er, there are many ani­mal species that reside there, even if they are few in num­ber. If you were to take a trip on the Nau­tilus, you would see large, flat, monot­o­nous areas – the abyssal plains – inter­spersed with numer­ous land­forms: seamounts, some­times active vol­ca­noes 1 and ocean trench­es. Fly­ing over the ridges, you would see huge moun­tain ranges in the cen­tre of the oceans, which togeth­er total more than 60,000 km. That’s equiv­a­lent to 1.5 times around the Earth! 

© Ifre­mer

“We know the sur­face of the Moon bet­ter than the bot­tom of our oceans!” Flo­ri­an Besson reveals. “The best bathy­met­ric map [aka. topog­ra­phy of the seabed] in exis­tence world­wide has a res­o­lu­tion of about 500 metres, com­pared with 1.5 metres on the Moon.” How­ev­er, almost 20% of the deep sea has been mapped more accu­rate­ly by ships equipped with depth probes. Through the Seabed2030 project, the Unit­ed Nations aims to map the entire seabed at high res­o­lu­tion by 2030.

One of the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the deep seabed is its polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: only a small part of it lies with­in the Exclu­sive Eco­nom­ic Zones (EEZ). In this case, they come under nation­al juris­dic­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly for the exploita­tion of the min­er­als they con­tain. “In France, the min­ing code gov­erns the explo­ration and exploita­tion of resources on land but also applies at sea,” explains Flo­ri­an Besson. Since it was last updat­ed in 2021, it con­tains stricter envi­ron­men­tal require­ments. But most of the deep sea is locat­ed out­side the EEZ, in inter­na­tion­al waters. It is then the Inter­na­tion­al Seabed Author­i­ty (ISA) that leg­is­lates. It was cre­at­ed in 1994 fol­low­ing the entry into force of the 3rd Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The IAMF issues explo­ration and exploita­tion con­tracts and ensures their con­trol. Today, 31 con­tracts of explo­ration with a dura­tion of 15 years have already been grant­ed to 22 entities.

Lacks regulation

No frame­work has yet been defined for min­ing in inter­na­tion­al waters. “The cur­rent chal­lenge is to define reg­u­la­tions: it must guar­an­tee very high envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and a fair dis­tri­b­u­tion of ben­e­fits among the UNCLOS sig­na­to­ry coun­tries, as inter­na­tion­al waters are defined as the ‘com­mon her­itage of mankind’,” says Flo­ri­an Besson. “Most min­er­al resources are locat­ed in inter­na­tion­al waters, and some states, such as the island of Nau­ru, are putting pres­sure on the IAMF to define an inter­na­tion­al min­ing code by July 2023 2.” In par­al­lel, a treaty to pro­tect the high seas is being dis­cussed under the aus­pices of the Unit­ed Nations (UN). Nego­ti­a­tions have been stalled since 2018, and this treaty could, among oth­er things, allow the cre­ation of marine pro­tect­ed areas on the high seas and pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tems often asso­ci­at­ed with marine min­er­al resources.

These nego­ti­a­tions reveal the inter­est of states in the deep sea. “Inter­est in the deep sea is not new: numer­ous oceano­graph­ic mis­sions took place in the 1970s and 1980s, enabling knowl­edge of cer­tain min­er­al resources to be increased,” adds Flo­ri­an Besson. “But in recent years, we have seen a strong revival of inter­est inter­na­tion­al­ly: some deep-sea met­als are of strate­gic inter­est for new tech­nolo­gies and green ener­gy.” In France, a nation­al strat­e­gy for deep-sea explo­ration and min­ing was ini­ti­at­ed in 2015 and approved at the Inter-min­is­te­r­i­al Com­mit­tee for the Sea in Jan­u­ary 2021 3. The first con­crete expres­sion of this strat­e­gy is the France 2030 nation­al invest­ment plan pre­sent­ed at the end of 2021, which pro­vides for a “Deep Seabed” objec­tive with a bud­get of 300 mil­lion euros. 300 mil­lion. It is intend­ed for explo­ration to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of these envi­ron­ments 4, the roadmap for which was recent­ly adopted.

High potential

No exploita­tion con­tracts have been issued by the IAMF in inter­na­tion­al waters, but two exploita­tion per­mits exist in the EEZs. These are the Atlantis II Deep project in the Red Sea and Nau­tilus Min­er­als” Sol­wara 1 project in Papua New Guinea. “Nei­ther of them has been suc­cess­ful and prob­a­bly nev­er will be,” says Flo­ri­an Besson. “The Red Sea project has been blocked since 2013 by a con­trac­tu­al dis­agree­ment between two com­pa­nies. In Papua New Guinea, the new enti­ty that bought Nau­tilus Min­er­als fol­low­ing its liq­ui­da­tion in 2019 now holds the licence, but its activ­i­ties are rather opaque.”

Apart from the poten­tial eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits, the deep seabed crys­tallis­es many issues. A report by the Acad­e­mies of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy 5 con­sid­ers that they “offer the oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­bine sci­en­tif­ic research, tech­no­log­i­cal progress, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, secu­ri­ty for cer­tain met­als and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the col­lec­tive imple­men­ta­tion of sus­tain­able man­age­ment of this new space.” This goes even fur­ther than min­er­al resources: France, for exam­ple, recent­ly adopt­ed a mil­i­tary strat­e­gy to con­trol the seabed 6, in par­tic­u­lar to pro­tect the many under­sea com­mu­ni­ca­tion cables that lit­ter the seabed, as well as the resources and biodiversity.

In this con­text, research has an impor­tant role to play. Knowl­edge of the con­se­quences of poten­tial deep-sea min­ing is very lim­it­ed: in France, there is only one sci­en­tif­ic assess­ment of envi­ron­men­tal impacts 7. The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty is increas­ing­ly look­ing into this sub­ject, in par­tic­u­lar to ensure envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing dur­ing the test­ing of exploita­tion pro­to­types. An analy­sis of the num­ber of sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions ded­i­cat­ed to oceano­graph­ic sci­ences 8 also reveals a sig­nif­i­cant dynam­ic. The num­ber of sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions is accel­er­at­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly thanks to the con­tri­bu­tions of Chi­na, Japan, and the Repub­lic of Korea. Jules Verne did not think he was antic­i­pat­ing the future so well with his Nautilus …

1https://​wwz​.ifre​mer​.fr/​E​s​p​a​c​e​-​P​r​e​s​s​e​/​C​o​m​m​u​n​i​q​u​e​s​-​d​e​-​p​r​e​s​s​e​/​I​m​a​g​e​s​-​i​n​e​d​i​t​e​s​-​a​u​-​p​l​u​s​-​p​r​e​s​-​d​u​-​v​o​l​c​a​n​-​s​o​u​s​-​m​a​r​i​n​-​d​e​-​M​a​yotte
2 The 1994 Agree­ment on the Imple­men­ta­tion of UNCLOS (in its Annex to Part XI, Sec­tion 1 (15)) pro­vides that all nec­es­sary reg­u­la­tions must be com­plet­ed with­in two years of a request. The State of Nau­ru invoked this two-year rule in June 2021, forc­ing the IAMF Coun­cil to adopt oper­at­ing reg­u­la­tions by July 2023. If the Board does not com­plete the reg­u­la­tion with­in the pre­scribed time­frame, the review of the oper­at­ing licence appli­ca­tion will be done on the basis of the reg­u­la­tions already adopt­ed, i.e. an unfin­ished reg­u­la­tion.
3Sum­ma­ry doc­u­ment of the report sub­mit­ted to the Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al for the Sea by Jean-Louis Lev­et: Stratégie nationale d’ex­plo­ration et d’ex­ploita­tion des ressources minérales dans les grands fonds marins, Bilan et ori­en­ta­tions pour une nou­velle dynamique, Jan­u­ary 2021.
4Web­site con­sult­ed on 01 June 2022: https://​www​.gou​verne​ment​.fr/​a​c​t​u​a​l​i​t​e​/​f​r​a​n​c​e​-​2​0​3​0​-​p​r​e​m​i​e​r​-​c​o​m​i​t​e​-​d​e​-​p​i​l​o​t​a​g​e​-​g​r​a​n​d​s​-​f​o​n​d​s​-​m​arins
5Joint report by the Académie des Sci­ences and the Académie des Tech­nolo­gies coor­di­nat­ed by Ghis­lain de Marsi­ly and Bernard Tardieu, Stratégie d’u­til­i­sa­tion des ressources du sous-sol pour la tran­si­tion énergé­tique française, May 2018
6https://​www​.defense​.gouv​.fr/​a​c​t​u​a​l​i​t​e​s​/​a​r​m​e​e​s​-​s​e​-​d​o​t​e​n​t​-​d​u​n​e​-​s​t​r​a​t​e​g​i​e​-​m​i​n​i​s​t​e​r​i​e​l​l​e​-​m​a​i​t​r​i​s​e​-​f​o​n​d​s​-​m​arins
7 J.Dyment,F.Lallier,N.LeBris,O.Rouxel,P.-M.Sarradin,S.Lamare,C.Coumert,M. Morineaux, J. Tourolle (coord.), 2014. Envi­ron­men­tal impacts of deep-sea min­er­al resource exploita­tion. Exper­tise sci­en­tifique col­lec­tive, Syn­thèse du rap­port, CNRS – Ifre­mer, 110 p.
8COI-UNESCO. 2020. World Ocean Sci­ence Report 2020 – Map­ping Capac­i­ties for Ocean Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Exec­u­tive Sum­ma­ry. K. Isensee (ed.), Paris, UNESCO Pub­lish­ing. (IOC Pol­i­cy Series, 2020–1)