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The last time I posted about water it was about the lack of available fresh water and clean sanitation that affects many parts of the world; especially children. This post is also about water, but about a lot more of it.

It is about the oceans. The oceans account for 70% of the world surface and 60% of the floor of the ocean lies deeper than 2000 meters. Ninety percent of all known living species live in the oceans and seas. There are likely many more that are unknown in the deep sea. The seabed has the highest percentage of biodiversity on the planet, with 98% of all marine animals.

We may know as little about the topography of the deep sea bed as we do about planets in our solar system. This general lack of interest is peculiar because it has a greater influence on life on our planet than those other planets do on earth. Some this I presume is visual. You look up in the sky and see the planets and the stars. There is a sense of awe. You look down in the ocean and you see a little below the surface. Interest in the oceans is principally confined to fisheries, coral and relatively recently, global warming.

Commercial and military interest generate interest in undiscovered places. In the case of the deep seabed the interest has again become mining. This interest is cyclical, because there has been intermittent interest since the 1970s. Technology and commodity pricing is the current impetus. The technology is improving and commodity prices for commercial minerals have been strong. A global recession might retard the interest again.

The deep sea bed lies within territorial waters and international waters. Sovereign offshore water rights include territorial waters, the contiguous zones, the Exclusive Enterprise Zone (EEZ) and the outer continental shelf. Territorial waters are 12 nautical miles from the country’s low water line (baseline). Beyond this 12 mile limit is contiguous zone of up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline. It is principally to permit a country to regulate immigration, trade, archealogical and historical sites and for other fiscal and sanitary reasons. It extends up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline, subject to another country’s zones. The EEZ is to protect a country’s economic interests in the living (e.g.,fishery and fauna) and the non-living (e.g.,minerals, oil, gas) in this zone. Beyond this may be the outer continental shelf if a country’s continental shelf extends beyond the limit of the EEZ. This so-called extended continental shelf affords a country sovereign rights over the resources at the surface and above and below. The high seas is beyond the EEZ and the “Area” is the surface and subsoil that is beyond any country’s sovereign waters, but does not include the water or air above this seabed. There are certain sovereign water limits for archipelagos as well.

When you see in the media that China and its neighbors are vying for sovereign control of barren islands in the South China Sea it is more than about national pride. It is about money. It is about sovereign rights to the water and seabed surrounding these islands. Apart from fishing, there are oil, gas and minerals. To get a sense of China’s interest in minerals, from 2006-2010 it accounted for about 47% of the world’s consumption of cobalt, copper, nickel and managanese. It was the world’s largest net importer, accounting for a little over 24% of the world’s net imports.

Technology has advanced such that it is conceivable to see mineral exploitation of deep seabeds within territorial waters and the Area in the next few years. Papua New Guinea has entered into a mineral leasing agreement with Nautilus Minerals, Inc. a Canadian company based in Australia, to mine copper and gold (Solwara 1) in the Bismarck Sea at depths up to 1600 meters. Polymetallic Sulphides deposits such as this are the principal commercial interest for future projects as they contain, copper, gold, silver, lead and zinc and are at depths of 1000-5000 meters. Other seabed deposits include polymetallic nodules and cobalt-ferromanganese crusts. Each have different mineral content and are located in different areas: hydrothermal vents; plate ridges, undersea volcanos-seamounts. Some sulphide seamounts are the size of mountain ranges.

Since we have been less than diligent in exploring, mapping and providing data about the deep sea, mining in this region is a bit unknown from the standpoint of geohazards (e.g., landslides, current turbidity, and possible tsunamis), biodiversity, and environmental management. In the Area, the Internationa Seabed Authority, which regulates the deep seabed as a global resource, is moving on a precautionary basis, doing research and allowing only exploration of the Area. At some point, perhaps in the next 5 years it could draft exploitation regulations that would permit mining. Archipelago countries, although cognizant of the risks, as tourism is economically important to them, may move at a faster pace toward exploration (particularly at shallower depths). The marine species in the deep sea and surrounding these resources are often unique; they exist without oxygen and despite the great pressure at these depths. There is biodiversity from one hydrothermal vent to another.

As is the case with the Artic Circle, mining in this area of the ocean bears close scrutiny. The scrutiny is not because those in industry and in regulation do not care. It is because there is so much that is still unknown. Oceans are integral to climate and the intergration of life. Although closer to home than outer space it remains a place of untapped risk and wonder.