According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the deep seabed is a vast and largely unexplored region that covers about two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and is home to unique ecosystems and mineral resources.
The deep seabed and abyssal plains are both terms used to describe the ocean floor, however, the deep seabed is a broader term and is generally defined as the seabed at depths greater than 400 meters, while abyssal plains are the relatively flat regions of the deep ocean floor that are 3000 to 6000 meters (1.86 to 3.72 miles) in depth. Abyssal plains cover more than 50% of the ocean floor and are rich in minerals.
As this timeline shows, the interest in this mineral-rich region spans more than 150 years.
As Early as 1869
In the science fiction classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1869, Jules Verne prophetically had Captain Nemo announce that “in the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver, and gold that would be quite easy to exploit.” While he didn’t get the exact mix of minerals or the ease of mining in the deep sea right, he did correctly predict that the deep seabed floor was rich in critical and valuable minerals.
In the 1870s, during the Challenger Expedition, a British scientific expedition that explored the world’s oceans, polymetallic nodules were first discovered on the deep seabed. These nodules are potato-sized rocks that contain high concentrations of valuable metals such as manganese, nickel, cobalt, and copper. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that interest in these nodules began to grow.
1965 to 1984
In 1965, John L. Mero published “The Mineral Resources of the Sea,” a book that catalyzed interest in the potential of the deep seabed as a source of valuable minerals. Mero’s book provided a detailed overview of the types of minerals that could be found in the deep seabed and how they could be extracted.
Several countries had expressed interest in exploring the deep seabed for mineral resources by the 1970s, and the first pilot-scale nodule collection efforts in CCZ using dredging and a riser pump occurred (a technology still proposed for use today.)
This led to the establishment of a legal regime for the exploration and recovery of mineral resources in the deep seabed by the United States with the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act in 1980, as an interim statute pending the completion of negotiations on a Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) acceptable to the U.S. This act was designed to promote the development of technology and expertise for deep seabed mining while also ensuring that the mining activities were conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.
In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was established to regulate activities in international waters. UNCLOS established a framework for the management and protection of the world’s oceans, including the deep seabed. UNCLOS also created the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in 1994, which was tasked with administering seabed mineral resources in international waters.
Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace and defense company, was granted two exploration licenses (USA-1 and USA-4) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1984 to explore the deep seabed for polymetallic nodules. The exploration was conducted in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an area in the Pacific Ocean that is rich in polymetallic nodules. The exploration licenses were renewed in 2022 for 5 years.
2001 to Today
Between 2001 and 2002, the ISA awarded 19 exploration permits in the CCZ to various countries and companies. These permits allowed the holders to conduct exploration activities in designated areas of the CCZ to assess the potential for commercial mining.
The Cook Islands established the Seabed Minerals Authority in 2009. The Cook Islands are located in the South Pacific and are home to one of the largest reserves of polymetallic nodules in the world. The establishment of the Seabed Minerals Authority aimed to promote the sustainable development of the Cook Islands’ mineral resources while ensuring that environmental protection and social responsibility were prioritized.
In 2022, the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority granted three exploration permits to various companies to explore the deep seabed for polymetallic nodules. This is a significant development in the Cook Islands’ efforts to develop their mineral resources and could lead to the establishment of a sustainable deep seabed mining industry.
The ISA is expected to finalize its highly anticipated exploitation regulations in 2023 which will provide guidance on how deep seabed mining activities should be conducted. These regulations are expected to include guidelines for environmental protection, social responsibility, and sustainable development.
The regulations have the potential to set a global standard for deep seabed mining, and they have the opportunity to promote the responsible and sustainable development of the world’s deep seabed mineral resources. The long history of the development of an industry may be about to move into production.