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Deep Sea wealth — an uncertain Bonanza

The churning sea. So awesome in its immensity. So frequently hostile. So unwilling to submit its secrets to man's conquest.

Mankind knows more about the forces and terrain of the moon and outer space than earth's water inner space. The oceans are mankind's last frontier.”It's like opening up the Wild West!" exclaimed one American oceanographer. But will it turn out to be another Gold Rush?

Man knows immense riches are there. Much of the wealth lies at depths of 10,000 to 20,000 feet (two to four miles). There, black nodules are to be found containing more than 40 elements. A number of these elements are in short supply or soon will be, from land-based sources.


Critical Minerals

For example, manganese and cobalt are critical in the production of high quality steels and in precision jet engine technology. Upon such minerals modern industry thrives or dies. But all of the Free World's supply of these two minerals comes from a few strife-torn nations in Africa. Mining officials believe mankind may run out of land-based manganese by the turn of the century or very soon thereafter. But the ocean bottoms have more than enough.

The nodules in some areas contain 30 percent manganese, 1.25 percent nickel, 1 percent copper and 0.25 percent cobalt. This is many times higher than usual land ores. And their tonnages on the ocean bottom are many times larger than known remaining land reserves.

The nodules were discovered long ago, in 1872. But it wasn't until after World War II that improved underwater cameras proved millions of square miles of ocean bottom are paved with them.

The cause of the nodules is still a mystery to humans. What is known is that they grow in layers like tree rings, but perceptibly slow. Still, their numbers are so vast that an estimated 16 million tons accumulate every year. Thus the world's oceans are a vast metal farm. The heaviest concentrations lie in a strip approximately 2,500-miles long and 500-miles wide, stretching from west of Mexico to south of Hawaii.

But there is an unanswered question to this vast treasure trove. Though we've developed sufficient technology to mine it, how good is the quality and at what costs?


Unproven Technology

Imagine dragging miles of heavy tubes or cables from a ship! And working in largely uncharted terrain. And fighting unknown currents. And stormy seas and unpredictable weather. But always needing precise navigation and control. And then there is the constant and terribly corrosive effect of salt water that so frequently frustrates and destroys man's intrusions into the deep.

No consortium of industries preparing for deep-ocean mining has constructed a full-scale mining ship operation, only smaller prototypes. Such full-scale ships would be enormous vessels. They must be capable of operating nonstop for months at a time and scooping up millions of tons a year. Mineral nodules would be transferred to bulk carriers that would shuttle between the mining ship and shore processing plants.

Three approaches of recovering nodules have been tested on a small scale: scraping nodules into a large bucket on a long cable; sucking nodules up in tubes like a giant vacuum cleaner; and sending swimming robots down to gather nodules directly.

Another approach on the drawing boards is a 50,000-foot rotating cable hung in a giant loop between two ships, with dozens of huge buckets scraping nodules off the bottom.

It all sounds exciting. But this technology is unbelievably complex and costly. And it will have its own massive problems with breakdowns, costly repairs and pollution.

"Sure, we can recover nodules today and tomorrow," said one official of a company preparing for ocean mining, "but can we do it day after day, year after year?"


Economical Risk

One U.S. Interior Department specialist on the U.S. Law of the Sea delegation believes deep-seabed mining will start to have a significant impact only after the turn of the century.

The cost of developing a single deep-sea mining site involves immense sums. No bank or private mining consortium wants to risk that kind of money on unproven technology without prior clear-cut terms and political conditions that guarantee security of operation for a 20-year period. It will take that long to recover the investment.

Cautioned one negotiator at the Law of the Sea Conference, "It is well to remember that no one can be certain that seabed mining will be profitable at all."

Besides enormous technological problems and costs, ecological hazards are potentially considerable. These hazards include:

heavy metal pollution of deep and surface waters, possibly leading to future depletion of resident fish populations (or of migrating fish, like tuna, being caught in the mining area); surface sediment that will interfere with light penetration and thus damage plankton formation and the food chain over hundreds of square miles; and the risk of unleashing dormant microorganisms potentially deadly to fauna, flora or man.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, a California biologist and oceanographer said, "We live at a pivotal time in history. [It is] the first time in civilization when mankind can make this impact on the deep sea. All we really know now is, our ignorance of this resource is vast."

It is clear that without the willingness of private consortiums from developed nations to take enormous risks and gambles, there will be no deep-sea riches — for anyone. Perhaps too many have allowed deep-sea riches to get out of focus.