Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Challenges to the sustainability of deep-seabed mining

Abstract

This Review focuses on whether the emerging industry of deep-seabed mining aligns with the sustainable development agenda. We cover motivations for deep-seabed mining, including to source metals for technology that assists with decarbonization, as well as governance issues surrounding the extraction of minerals. Questions of sustainability and ethics, including environmental, legal, social and rights-based challenges, are considered. Slowing the transition from exploration to exploitation and promoting a circular economy may have regulatory, technological and environmental benefits.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Examples of primary mineral resources, associated habitats and extraction mode schematic.
Fig. 2: International deep-seabed mining exploration contracts and countries.

References

  1. 1.

    Sparenberg, O. A historical perspective on deep-sea mining for manganese nodules, 1965–2019. Extr. Ind. Soc. 6, 842–854 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Graedel, T. E., Harper, E. M., Nassar, N. T. & Reck, B. K. On the materials basis of modern society. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6295–6300 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Ali, S. H. et al. Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance. Nature 543, 367–372 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Rozemeijer, M. J., van den Burg, S. W., Jak, R., Lallier, L. E. & van Craenenbroeck, K. in Building Industries at Sea: ‘Blue Growth’ and the New Maritime Economy (eds Johnson, K. et al.) 73–136 (River Publishers, 2018).

  5. 5.

    Hein, J. R., Mizell, K., Koschinsky, A. & Conrad, T. A. Deep-ocean mineral deposits as a source of critical metals for high- and green-technology applications: comparison with land-based resources. Ore Geol. Rev. 51, 1–14 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Giurco, D., Dominish, E., Florin, N., Watari, T. & McLellan, B. in Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals (ed. Teske, S.) 437–457 (Springer, 2019).

  7. 7.

    Dominish, E., Florin, N. & Teske, S. Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy (Earthworks, 2019).

  8. 8.

    Ayuk, E. T. et al. Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century: Gearing Extractive Industries Towards Sustainable Development (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019).

  9. 9.

    IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (WMO, 2018).

  10. 10.

    Study to Investigate State of Knowledge of Deep Sea Mining Final Report under FWC MARE/2012/06 – SC E1/2013/04 (Ecorys, 2014).

  11. 11.

    Levin, L. A. et al. Defining “serious harm” to the marine environment in the context of deep-seabed mining. Mar. Policy 74, 245–259 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Miller, K. A., Thompson, K. F., Johnston, P. & Santillo, D. An overview of seabed mining including the current state of development, environmental impacts and knowledge gaps. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 418 (2018). This article highlights the settings for exploration contracts, potential environmental impacts, and critical knowledge gaps and management approaches that may reduce incentives to mine.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Petersen, S. et al. News from the seabed – geological characteristics and resource potential of deep-sea mineral resources. Mar. Policy 70, 175–187 (2016). Manganese nodules and Co-rich ferromanganese crusts are a vast resource and mining them could have a profound impact on global metal markets, whereas the global resource potential of seafloor massive sulfides appears to be small.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Hein, J. R. & Koschinsky, A. in Treatise on Geochemistry 2nd edn (eds Holland, H. D. & Turekian, K. K.) 273–291 (Elsevier, 2014).

  15. 15.

    Paulikas, D., Katona, S., Ilves, E., Stone, G. & O’Sullivan, A. Where Should Metals for the Green Transition Come From? Comparing Environmental, Social, and Economic Impacts of Supplying Base Metals from Land Ores and Seafloor Polymetallic Nodules (DeepGreen, 2020).

  16. 16.

    Hannington, M., Jamieson, J., Monecke, T. & Petersen, S. in The Challenge of Finding New Mineral Resources: Global Metallogeny, Innovative Exploration, and New Discoveries Special Publication 15 (eds Goldfarb, R. J. et al.) 317–338 (Society of Economic Geologists, 2010).

  17. 17.

    Takaya, Y. et al. The tremendous potential of deep-sea mud as a source of rare-earth elements. Sci. Rep. 8, 5763 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Collins, P. C. et al. A primer for the environmental impact assessment of mining at seafloor massive sulfide deposits. Mar. Policy 42, 198–209 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Lodge, M. W. & Verlaan, P. A. Deep-sea mining: international regulatory challenges and responses. Elements 14, 331–336 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Marques, S. & de Araújo, T. C. M. Survey and assessment of seabed resources from the Brazilian continental shelf by the law of the sea: from national to international jurisdictions. Ocean Coast. Manage. 178, 104858 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Thompson, K. F., Miller, K. A., Currie, D., Johnston, P. & Santillo, D. Seabed mining and approaches to governance of the deep seabed. Front. Mar. Sci. 5, 480 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Mayer, L. et al. The Nippon Foundation—GEBCO seabed 2030 project: the quest to see the world’s oceans completely mapped by 2030. Geosciences 8, 63 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Morgan, N. B., Cairns, S., Reiswig, H. & Baco, A. R. Benthic megafaunal community structure of cobalt-rich manganese crusts on Necker Ridge. Deep Sea Res. Pt I 104, 92–105 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Amon, D. J. et al. First insights into the abundance and diveristy of abyssal megafauna in a polymetallic-nodule region in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Sci. Rep. 6, 30492 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Gooday, A. J. et al. Giant protists (xenophyophores, Foraminifera) are exceptionally diverse in parts of the abyssal eastern Pacific licensed for polymetallic nodule exploration. Biol. Conserv. 207, 106–116 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Van Dover, C. L. et al. Scientific rationale and international obligations for protection of active hydrothermal vent ecosystems from deep-sea mining. Mar. Policy 90, 20–28 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Van Dover, C. L. Inactive sulfide ecosystems in the deep sea: a review. Front. Mar. Sci. 6, 461 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Sweetman, A. K. et al. Key role of bacteria in the short-term cycling of carbon at the abyssal seafloor in a low particulate organic carbon flux region of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Limnol. Oceanogr. 64, 694–713 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Ardyna, M. et al. Hydrothermal vents trigger massive phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean. Nat. Commun. 10, 2451 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Gollner, S. et al. Resilience of benthic deep-sea fauna to mining activities. Mar. Environ. Res. 129, 76–101 (2017). There is wide variation in recovery rates among taxa, size and mobility classes of fauna, with the loss or alteration of hard substrata potentially causing substantial community shifts that persist over geological timescales.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Vanreusel, A., Hilário, A., Ribeiro, P., Menot, L. & Martinez Arbizu, P. Threatened by mining, polymetallic nodules are required to preserve abyssal epifauna. Sci. Rep. 6, 26808 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Van Dover, C. L. Impacts of anthropogenic disturbances at deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems: a review. Mar. Environ. Res. 102, 59–72 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Boetius, A. & Haeckel, M. Mind the seafloor. Science 359, 34–36 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Van Dover, C. L. et al. Biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining. Nat. Geosci. 10, 464–465 (2017). The four-tier mitigation hierarchy used so often to minimize biodiversity loss in terrestrial mining and offshore oil and gas operations fails when applied to the deep ocean.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Le, J. T., Levin, L. A. & Carson, R. T. Incorporating ecosystem services into environmental management of deep-seabed mining. Deep Sea Res. Pt II 137, 486–503 (2017). There are many ecosystem services provided by deep-sea ecosystems that are vulnerable to mining impacts; these services should be incorporated into environmental management plans.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Niner, H. J. et al. Deep-sea mining with no net loss of biodiversity—an impossible aim. Front. Mar. Sci. 5, 53 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Bluhm, H. Re-establishment of an abyssal megabenthic community after experimental physical disturbance of the seafloor. Deep Sea Res. Pt II 48, 3841–3868 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Jones, D. O. B. et al. Biological responses to disturbance from simulated deep-sea polymetallic nodule mining. PLoS ONE 12, e0171750 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Miljutin, D. M., Miljutina, M. A., Martinez Arbizu, P. & Galeron, J. Deep-sea nematode assemblage has not recovered 26 years after experimental mining of polymetallic nodules (Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, Tropical Eastern Pacific). Deep Sea Res. Pt I 58, 885–897 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Simon-Lledó, E. et al. Biological effects 26 years after simulated deep-sea mining. Sci. Rep. 9, 8040 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Implementation of Article 82 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (ISA, 2013).

  42. 42.

    Tunnicliffe, V., Metaxas, A., Le, J., Ramirez-Llodra, E. & Levin, L. A. Strategic environmental goals and objectives: setting the basis for environmental regulation of deep seabed mining. Mar. Policy 114, 103347 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Wedding, L. M. et al. From principles to practice: a spatial approach to systematic conservation planning in the deep sea. Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20131684 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Wedding, L. M. et al. Managing mining of the deep seabed. Science 349, 144–145 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Mengerink, K. J. et al. A call for deep-ocean stewardship. Science 344, 696–698 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Dunn, D. C. et al. A strategy for the conservation of biodiversity on mid-ocean ridges from deep-sea mining. Sci. Adv. 4, 4313 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Levin, L. A. et al. Climate change considerations are fundamental to management of deep-sea resource extraction. Glob. Change Biol. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15223 (2020).

  48. 48.

    Cuvelier, D. et al. Potential mitigation and restoration actions in ecosystems impacted by seabed mining. Front. Mar. Sci. 5, 467 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Design of IRZs and PRZs in Deep-Sea Mining Contract Areas Briefing Paper 02/2018 (ISA, 2018).

  50. 50.

    Ellis, D. V. A review of some environmental issues affecting marine mining. Mar. Georesour. Geotechnol. 19, 51–63 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Thiel, H. et al. The large-scale environmental impact experiment DISCOL - reflection and foresight. Deep Sea Res. Pt II 48, 3869–3882 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Jaeckel, A. Deep seabed mining and adaptive management: the procedural challenges for the International Seabed Authority. Mar. Policy 70, 205–211 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (UNCLOS, 1982).

  54. 54.

    ISBA/25/C/18 - Draft Regulations on Exploitation of Mineral Resources in the Area (ISA, 2019).

  55. 55.

    Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities with Respect to Activities in the Area - List of Cases: No. 17 (ITLOS, 2011).

  56. 56.

    Lily, H. Sponsoring State Approaches to Liability Regimes for Environmental Damage Caused by Seabed Mining (Centre for International Governance Innovation, The Commonwealth Secretariat, and the International Seabed Authority, 2018).

  57. 57.

    Precautionary Management of Deep Sea Minerals (English) (World Bank Group, 2017).

  58. 58.

    Comparative Study of the Existing National Legislation on Deep Seabed Mining (ISA, 2019).

  59. 59.

    SPC Pacific-ACP States Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation (Secretariat of the Pacific Community, 2012).

  60. 60.

    Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UNEP, 1992).

  61. 61.

    Rojas, A. S. & Phillips, F.-K. Effective Control and Deep Seabed Mining: Toward a Definition (Centre for International Governance Innovation, The Commonwealth Secretariat, and the International Seabed Authority, 2019).

  62. 62.

    ISBA/22/A/CRP.3 (1) - Periodic Review of the International Seabed Authority pursuant to UNCLOS Article 154 (Seascape Consultants, 2016).

  63. 63.

    In Deep Water: The Emerging Threat of Deep Sea Mining (Greenpeace, 2019).

  64. 64.

    Ardron, J. A., Ruhl, H. A. & Jones, D. O. B. Incorporating transparency into the governance of deep-seabed mining in the Area beyond National Jurisdiction. Mar. Policy 89, 58–66 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Fourth Report of the Code Project: Summary of Stakeholder Comments on the 2018 ISA Draft Regulations (Pew Charitable Trust, 2019).

  66. 66.

    Report of the Chair of the Legal and Technical Commission on the work of the Commission at its session in 2017 (ISA LTC, 2017).

  67. 67.

    French, D. & Collins, R. A Guardian of Universal Interest or Increasingly Out of Its Depth? The International Seabed Authority Turns 25 (International Organizations Law Review, 2019).

  68. 68.

    Statement by Belgium to the International Seabed Authority 22 June 2018 (The Belgian Government, 2018).

  69. 69.

    Statement by Germany to the International Seabed Authority 27 June 2018 (The German Government, 2018).

  70. 70.

    Statement by Algeria on Behalf of the African Group to the International Seabed Authority 9 July 2018 (The African Group, 2018).

  71. 71.

    Statement by Algeria on Behalf of the African Group to the International Seabed Authority 25 February 2019 (The African Group, 2019).

  72. 72.

    An Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Mining Deep-sea Minerals in the Pacific Island Region: Deep-sea Mining Cost-Benefit Analysis (SPC / Cardno, 2016).

  73. 73.

    Kirchain, R. & Roth, R. MIT Presentation: Decision Analysis Framework & Review of Cash Flow Approach presented at the Financial Payment System Working Group Meeting (International Seabed Authority, 2019).

  74. 74.

    First Report of the Code Project: Developing International Seabed Authority Environmental Regulations (Pew Charitable Trust, 2017).

  75. 75.

    Taguchi, H. & Khinsamone, S. Analysis of the ‘Dutch Disease’ effect on the selected resource-rich ASEAN economies. Asia Pacific Policy Stud. 5, 249–263 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Feichtner, I. Mining for humanity in the deep sea and outer space: the role of small states and international law in the extraterritorial expansion of extraction. Leiden J. Int. Law 32, 255–274 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Jaeckel, A., Gjerde, K. M. & Ardron, J. A. Conserving the common heritage of humankind – options for the deep-seabed mining regime. Mar. Policy 78, 150–157 (2017). The deep-seabed mining regime is not yet ready to effectively share the benefits derived from the common heritage of mankind.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. 78.

    Thiele, T., Ginzky, H., Christiansen, S. & Damian, H.-P. A Benefit Sharing Mechanism Appropriate for the Common Heritage of Mankind UBA/IASS Workshop Summary Project No. (FKZ) 3717 25 227 0. (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, 2019).

  79. 79.

    Wakefield, J. R. & Myers, K. Social cost benefit analysis for deep sea minerals mining. Mar. Policy 95, 346–355 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. 80.

    Thurber, A. R. et al. Ecosystem function and services provided by the deep sea. Biogeosciences 11, 3941–3963 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. 81.

    Armstrong, C., Foley, N., Tinch, R. & van den Hove, S. Services from the deep: steps towards valuation of deep sea goods and services. Ecosyst. Serv. 2, 2–13 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    Craik, A. N. et al. Legal Liability for Environmental Harm: Synthesis and Overview (Centre for International Governance Innovation, The Commonwealth Secretariat, and the International Seabed Authority, 2018).

  83. 83.

    Aguon, J. & Hunter, J. Second wave due diligence: the case for incorporating free, prior, and informed consent into the deep sea mining regulatory regime. Stanf. Environ. Law J. 38, 3–55 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  84. 84.

    Singh, P. & Pouponneau, A. Comments to the Draft Regulations on Exploitation of Mineral Resources in the Area: Transboundary harm and the rights of Coastal States adjacent to the Area. International Seabed Authority (30 September 2018); https://go.nature.com/3eb10wi

  85. 85.

    Kim, R. E. Should deep seabed mining be allowed? Mar. Policy 82, 134–137 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    Fleming, J., Ford, L. & Hornsby, E. Facing the Abyss: The Future of Deep Sea Mining (Oxford Univ., 2018).

  87. 87.

    Teske, S., Florin, N., Dominish, E. & Giurco, D. Renewable Energy and Deep Sea Mining: Supply, Demand and Scenarios (Institute for Sustainable Futures, 2016).

  88. 88.

    LDAC Advice on Deepsea Mining R.04.19.WG5. (Long Distance Advisory Council, 2019).

  89. 89.

    Church, C. & Crawford, A. Green Conflict Minerals (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2018).

  90. 90.

    Ghisellini, P., Cialani, C. & Ulgiati, S. A review on circular economy: the expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems. J. Clean. Prod. 114, 11–32 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  91. 91.

    Van der Voet, E., Van Oers, L., Verboon, M. & Kuipers, K. Environmental implications of future demand scenarios for metals: methodology and application to the case of seven major metals. J. Ind. Ecol. 23, 141–155 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  92. 92.

    Tansel, B. From electronic consumer products to e-wastes: global outlook, waste quantities, recycling challenges. Environ. Int. 98, 35–45 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  93. 93.

    Sovacool, B. K. et al. Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future. Science 367, 30–33 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  94. 94.

    Baker, E. & Beaudoin, Y. (eds) Deep Sea Minerals: Cobalt-rich Ferromanganese Crusts, a Physical, Biological, Environmental, and Technical Review Vol. 1C (SPC, 2013).

  95. 95.

    Haugan, P. M. et al. What Role for Ocean-Based Renewable Energy and Deep Seabed Minerals in a Sustainable Future? (World Resources Institute, 2020); www.oceanpanel.org/blue-papers/ocean-energy-and-mineral-sources

Download references

Acknowledgements

This Review is derived in part from High Level Panel Blue Paper 3 ‘What role for ocean renewable energy and deep-seabed minerals in a sustainable future?’ under the auspices of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The authors thank P. Haugan and the WRI secretariat for the opportunity to engage; R. Young, V. Monaco and J. Gonzalez for drafting and editorial support; and M. Hannington for assistance with massive sulfide metal calculations. Technical support funding was provided by WRI and by the JM Kaplan Fund (to L.A.L. and H.L.). D.J.A. received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement number 747946. H.L. was supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, United Kingdom, while preparing this manuscript. No original data were generated or archived.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

L.A.L. initially conceived the manuscript and developed the figures and tables. L.A.L., D.J.A. and H.L. wrote the manuscript together.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Lisa A. Levin, Diva J. Amon or Hannah Lily.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Levin, L.A., Amon, D.J. & Lily, H. Challenges to the sustainability of deep-seabed mining. Nat Sustain 3, 784–794 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0558-x

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links