Year 9, Day 365

Seth’s photo of the view from the hill at Morgan’s Rock in Nicaragua

Today marks ten years since the first post on this platform. Seth’s description of a crab-eating little possum wandering by as he was reading, and a sloth-sighting together with two people visiting Nicaragua from the USA, reads like an entry in a travelogue. A later post about boarding down a volcano was the most viewed post of the first year.

Seth sandboarding down Volcán Cerro Negro in Nicaragua

A man named Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru, was on a hunger strike to protest corruption when Michael, a senior at Amherst College, landed in India to begin an internship

Michael’s first post likewise starts as a travelogue, but veers into different territory as he reads the news about two men who are sacrificing comfort, and even life, for causes they believe in. The post goes on to identify drinking water as a cause worthy of the reader’s attention. Over the course of his time with us in India he wrote some of my personal favorites. He helped me better understand that the value of the internships we offered were as much about personal growth as about work experience.

Within a few years, permits could be issued for commercial miners hoping to harvest the submerged wealth of the sea. Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants

A decade was set in motion. This is our 10,286th post. Whatever meaning might be drawn from statistics, such as 827,462 views of our posts as of this writing, I find reasons to continue what those two started. Every day a bird is featured, thanks to Amie’s network of bird photographers. And every day I scan the news to share something enlightening, or I jot a note about a new idea we are trying out, always related to causes we care about. Today, on this rounding out of a decade, I mark the occasion by sharing the latest publication of a writer whose work rarely makes me happy but who I nonetheless link to often as a head-out-of-the-sand gesture:

The Deep Sea Is Filled with Treasure, but It Comes at a Price

We’ve barely explored the darkest realm of the ocean. With rare-metal mining on the rise, we’re already destroying it.

June 14, 2021

The International Seabed Authority is headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, in a building that looks a bit like a prison and a bit like a Holiday Inn. The I.S.A., which has been described as “chronically overlooked” and is so obscure that even many Jamaicans don’t know it exists, has jurisdiction over roughly half the globe.

Under international law, countries control the waters within two hundred miles of their shores. Beyond that, the oceans and all they contain are considered “the common heritage of mankind.” This realm, which encompasses nearly a hundred million square miles of seafloor, is referred to in I.S.A.-speak simply as the Area.

Scattered across the Area are great riches. Mostly, these take the shape of lumps that resemble blackened potatoes. The lumps, known formally as polymetallic nodules, consist of layers of ore that have built up around bits of marine debris, such as ancient shark teeth. The process by which the metals accumulate is not entirely understood; however, it’s thought to be exceedingly slow. A single spud-size nugget might take some three million years to form. It has been estimated that, collectively, the nodules on the bottom of the ocean contain six times as much cobalt, three times as much nickel, and four times as much of the rare-earth metal yttrium as there is on land. They contain six thousand times as much tellurium, a metal that’s even rarer than the rare earths.

The first attempts to harvest this submerged wealth were undertaken nearly fifty years ago. In the summer of 1974, a drillship purportedly belonging to Howard Hughes—the Hughes Glomar Explorer—anchored north of Midway Atoll, ostensibly to bring up nodules from the depths. In fact, the ship was operated by the C.I.A., which was trying to raise a sunken Soviet submarine. But then, in a curious twist, a real company called Ocean Minerals leased the Glomar to collect nodules from the seabed west of Baja California. The president of the company likened the exercise to “standing on the top of the Empire State Building, trying to pick up small stones on the sidewalk using a long straw, at night.”

After the Glomar expeditions, interest in seabed mining waned. It’s now waxing again. As one recent report put it, “The Pacific Ocean is the scene of a new wild west.” Thirty companies have received permits from the I.S.A. to explore the Area. Most are looking to slurp up the nodules; others are hoping to excavate stretches of the ocean floor that are rich in cobalt and copper. Permits to begin commercial mining could be issued within a few years.

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that the sooner it starts the better. Manufacturing wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar panels, and batteries for energy storage requires resources, often scarce ones. (Tellurium is a key component in thin-film solar panels.) “The reality is that the clean-energy transition is not possible without taking billions of tons of metal from the planet,” Gerard Barron, the chairman of the Metals Company, one of the businesses that holds permits from the I.S.A., observed a few months ago. Seafloor nodules, he said, “offer a way to dramatically reduce” the environmental impact of extracting these tons.

But seabed mining poses environmental hazards of its own. The more scientists learn about the depths, the more extraordinary the discoveries. The ocean floor is populated by creatures that thrive under conditions that seem impossibly extreme. There is, for example, a ghostly pale deep-sea octopus that lays its eggs only on the stalks of nodule-dwelling sponges. Remove the nodules in order to melt them down and it will, presumably, take millions of years for new ones to form.

Edith Widder is a marine biologist, a MacArthur Fellow, and the author of “Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea” (Random House). Widder is an expert on bioluminescence, a topic that she became interested in after nearly going blind. In 1970, when she was a freshman in college, she had to have surgery for a broken back. The surgery went fine, but afterward she started hemorrhaging. Her heart stopped beating, and she was resuscitated. This happened again, and then a third time. Blood leaked into both of her eyes, blocking her retinas. “My visual world was swirling darkness with occasional glimpses of meaningless light,” she recalls. Eventually, she regained her vision, but she no longer took sight for granted.

“We believe we see the world as it is,” she writes. “We don’t. We see the world as we need to see it to make our existence possible.”

The same goes for fish. Only the top layers of the oceans are illuminated. The “sunlight zone” extends down about seven hundred feet, the “twilight zone” down another twenty-six hundred feet. Below that—in the “midnight zone,” the “abyssal zone,” and the “hadal zone”—there’s only blackness, and the light created by life itself. In this vast darkness, so many species have mastered the art of bioluminescence that Widder estimates they constitute a “majority of the creatures on the planet.” The first time she descended into the deep in an armored diving suit called a wasp, she was overwhelmed by the display. “This was a light extravaganza unlike anything I could have imagined,” she writes. “Afterwards, when asked to describe what I had seen, I blurted, ‘It’s like the Fourth of July down there!’ ”…

Read the whole article here.

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