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NZZ: Hidden treasures lie in the depths of the sea, by Anja Jardine, 11 October 2019

Read the original article in German here.

Humans are claiming the deep sea

With the treasures of the deep sea, we are helping ourselves to the last untouched terrain on the Earth. However, this land grab is like nothing that has ever occurred before in history. We also owe it to Elisabeth Mann Borgese, the daughter of Thomas Mann. No doubt she would prefer that we leave the ocean floor in peace.

It is difficult to say what the deciding factor in keeping the ongoing negotiations going would be. At the beginning, there was idealism, the vision of a fairer and more peaceful world, where planets would be handled with care. The time seemed to be right at the end of the 1960s. What was also clear was that love was the topic at hand – love for the sea and the people, but also the love between a man and a woman. In any case, the result is impressive, a unique testimony of civilisation: the floor of the high seas – and subsequently over half of the Earth’s surface – was said to be the mutual legacy of all humanity. When the last great land grab begins in the near future, it will be different to any other previous attempt at appropriation – thanks to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

No-one can see the green behemoth, but ‘Patania II’ is an avant-garde figure, a high-tech combine harvester, vacuum and tank hybrid. It is so strong that it can carry a column of water over 4000 m high on its shoulders, yet so gentle that it will barely make a scratch on the seabed as it moves through the darkness of the Pacific Ocean at a tempo of 0.3 m per second, somewhere between Hawaii and Mexico, and collects manganese nodules. That is the plan, at least. Whether it functions will be tested in April 2019 in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Patania II is supposed to dive 4100 m to the ocean floor.

Every sea cucumber that the Patania II rolls past, every anemone deprived of its habit, every cloud of sediment that it stirs up is to be registered and documented by ocean researchers. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) will be made aware of the results, so that they are included in the ‘mining code’. The Seabed Authority is working on a policy for deep sea mining under high pressure. Industry, conservation in close collaboration, as sleek and efficient as a zipper, or so it seems.

For many years, the high seas have been seen as a place of freedom. The Dutchman Hugo Grotius had referred to the claims of the Spanish and the Portuguese to a monopoly in colonial trading when defending the right to free shipping and free trade in his piece ‘Mare liberum’. The sea was too large, he wrote, and as free as the air. It did not belong to anyone. Britain’s John Selden disagreed, and developed the ‘Mare clausum’ doctrine in 1635, which divided the sea into spheres of interests for different states. Only the Dutch lawyer Cornelis van Bynkershoek found the formula for a kind of compromise in 1703: “Territorial sovereignty ends where the power of weapons ends.” At that time, cannonballs could fly for three miles.

For centuries, there was a hotchpotch of random sovereignties and freedoms in force, decided by a naval battle in case of doubt. However, in the second half of the 20th century, when major powers were not the only ones to extend their territorial sovereignty in the oceans – for example, when searching for oil and gas offshore – the call for a new maritime law became louder. In the past, shipping and fishing were involved, but the subject had now turned to mineral resources which did not regrow. Manganese nodules, for example. They do not only contain manganese, but also nickel, cobalt and copper. The question becomes more and more pressing: to whom do they belong?

At the UN General Assembly on 1 November 1967, the Maltese ambassador made a daring suggestion: from now on, the riches of the Earth should not just be left to the most powerful nations, but should be used for the good of everyone, peacefully, fairly and while protecting the environment – as the mutual inheritance of humanity. His name was Arvid Pardo, and his homeland had just been released from British colonial rule, like many colonies of the time. Along with the Second World War, the impact of which could still be felt by everyone, this also made its mark on the zeitgeist. Pardo spoke in front of the delegates for three hours and made it clear that neither sovereignty nor freedom would do justice to the new requirements. The former would bring destruction and plunder, the latter territorial conflicts and the danger of new wars. A new approach would be needed.

Elisabeth Mann Borgese had already believed this for some time. At the time, the youngest daughter of the writer Thomas Mann was working in Santa Barbara in California at the ‘Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions’ when the ‘ocean question’ went viral. Twenty-five years earlier, when she was still a student at the conservatory in Zürich and inspired by the desire to become a pianist, she read a book by the Italian historian and political scientist Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and realised: “This was my man.” Three years later, she married the professor – 36 years her senior – had two daughters with him and supported him in working on a global constitution which appeared in 1948, with millions of copies in circulation, translated into 40 languages. Like many intellectuals at the time, Borgese was looking for a new order for political relations, which would prevent fascism and war in the future.

Then, years after his death, Elisabeth Mann Borgese suddenly opened a ‘laboratory’ where one part of their political aims could be realised, at least; the oceans were also large, but a new order was explicitly desired for them as well. After Pardo’s long speech, she invited him to Santa Barbara for an exchange of ideas, and they worked together from then on. Mann Borgese immediately started work on preliminary drafts for a new maritime law constitution and organised an international conference, where 300 experts in politics, research, law and economics travelled to Malta to have interdisciplinary discussions. ‘Pacem in Maribus’ – ‘Peace in the Seas’ – became an annual meeting for all those who had expertise and influence in issues relating to the sea. The second conference, according to a participant, was just as unforgettable, as Mann Borgese invited everyone to stand up and sing ‘Octopus’s Garden’ by the Beatles together at the beginning of the plenary session; twelve lines of lyrics had been provided. It started tentatively, gradually became uninhibited, and ended with misty eyes.

In 1973, the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea officially began on a diplomatic level, where delegates from almost 160 states met every year for several weeks of negotiations. Mann Borgese took part as a member from the small Austrian delegation, which belonged to the landlocked countries block. The negotiations dragged on, and Pardo became more and more frustrated. The industrial countries vehemently fought back against all elements which pushed for planned economy and prioritised the interests of developing countries. In 1980, Pardo stated: “The conference is a disaster.” The two sent messages back and forth which they each corrected, worked on speeches together, and constantly exchanged views. However, they had only seen each other at the conferences – two or three times a year for a few weeks, over several years. Pardo had a wife and children in Malta.

No plan economy

Finally, the goal was achieved in 1982; 159 states signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Humanity’s largest policy governs all types of uses of the seas: shipping, fishing, natural gas and oil drilling, deep sea mining, maritime research and conservation. The sovereignty of the coastal states was limited to 12 nautical miles, exclusive rights of use to 200 nautical miles. It was not the seas, as suggested by Pardo, but only the ocean floor and its non-living resources which were declared to be the mutual inheritance of humanity. Pardo saw it as a betrayal of his idea; by contrast, as Mann Borgese wrote later, she was surprised how much of the original draft had survived in the political arena, where no concept remained completely pure.

The fact that it took twelve years for the Convention on the Law of the Sea to finally come into force in 1994 particularly showed that the United Nations could not agree on how the treasures of the seabed should be divided. It was only after a free industrial technology transfer to the developing countries being put on the table that communications could be made about modalities for deep sea mining. In the meantime, 167 nations and the European Union have signed the Convention on the Law of the Sea, though the USA – the world’s largest coastal state – has yet to sign it.

The Seabed Authority is based in Kingston, Jamaica, and is no bigger than a primary school. Around 50 people from different nations manage 54 % of the earth’s surface on trust here. Anyone who wants to extract raw materials in ‘the area’ must apply here for a licence, which initially only allows them to explore an area. A fee of $500,000 must be paid for this. Private companies may only apply for an exploration licence with a state, the ‘sponsoring state’, which monitors their activity and is liable for them.

New neighbours on the seabed

And this is really special: for example, if manganese nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone are involved, the licence holder must explore two areas of the same economic value, and the ISA will choose one of these for them. This ‘reserved area’ can either be made available to developing states or mined by the ISA itself as a quasi co-operative effort. Each licence holder is given a maximum area of 75,000 m2, an area almost twice as big as Switzerland at least. This licence is valid for 15 years, can be extended once by 5 years and must then either be changed to a mining licence or returned to the ISA. China, Japan, France, Russia and South Korea were the first. They applied for exploration licences for manganese nodules in 2001. Likewise, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Russia and Cuba, who joined forces for ‘Interoceanmetal’. So far, the ISA has handed out 17 exploration licences for manganese nodules. A further 5 for cobalt crusts at the edges of underwater mountain ranges, and 7 for massive sulphides in volcanically active areas, where tectonic plates drift against each other. The number of orders for exploration licences has tripled in the past five years.

Interesting new neighbourhoods have arisen on the seabed; Tonga and Nauru border the German licence area in the south, the United Kingdom is behind a ‘reserved area’ in the east, and Eastern European countries have settled in the west with Interoceanmetal. All of them are the same size, which is even more impressive given that in real life, Nauru is the smallest republic in the world with 20 km2 of mainland. It is still quiet down there, as not one mining licence has been granted yet, but preparations are going full steam ahead. South Korea has already carried out device tests at a depth of 1400 m, China at a depth of 500 m, in 2017 the Japanese lowered a caterpillar by the Okinawan coast at a depth of 1600 m, and the Indians even would have sent their robots all the way down to the bottom at 5000 m, had a storm not arisen.

Patania II is the pioneer in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. It is also only a test robot and belongs to Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of the Belgian group Deme, which has been digging for 140 years under the slogan ‘We shape the planet’, especially in wet conditions. It specialises in harbour basins, rivers and offshore systems, but also removes contaminated soils from the land, such as before the building of the Olympia Stadium in London. Deep sea mining is a new line of business for which Kris Van Nijen is responsible.

Van Nijen is forty, a cyclist and father of two daughters, and although you might not count Patania II, it is also his baby in a certain sense, although he says that this baby has several fathers. Since he took on deep sea mining in 2010, he has been a manager in permanent defence mode. “I keep seeing these headlines,” he says as a greeting: “‘Deep sea mining for mobile phones’.” And he sternly adds: “It’s not about telephones.” Instead, it is mainly about population growth – according to UNO, at the end of the century, almost eleven billion people were living on the Earth. Secondly, it is about the global transformation from fossil to renewable energy.

The Canadian raw material geologist Steven Scott presented this fact to society in the form of a question: “By 2025, China is expected to have built 211 cities with over a million inhabitants, that is 65 cities the size of Berlin or one ‘Berlin’ every 14 weeks. – Where should the metals come from? A hybrid vehicle contains about 50 kg of copper, a pure electric vehicle up to 100 kg. – Where should the copper come from?”

Carsten Rühlemann, a geologist from the Federal Institute of Earth Sciences and Raw Materials in Hannover, reckons that the demand for most metals and minerals over the next few decades will also include land. There are indications of shortages for only a few raw materials, such as cobalt. The problem is not so much of a geological nature as it is of a political one. Fewer and fewer companies own larger and larger deposits in fewer and fewer countries. For example, China accounts for 98 % of the global production of rare earths, of which the Chinese government promptly reminded the Americans this summer, when the economic war between both countries was at its peak. Speculations also always ensure rising prices, which can weaken industrial nations. In 2006, the price of copper rose rapidly after the Chinese bought up large quantities; in 2014, they hoarded several times the worldwide annual production of indium. The question of raw materials cannot be answered without mentioning politics and societies, says Rühlemann. “60 % of the world’s cobalt is produced in Congo, a rising trend – sometimes using child labour.”

The mining of metallic raw materials is one of the largest sectors of the global economy. However, the quality of many land deposits is becoming increasingly worse. And we must dig deeper and deeper to reach the treasure, in more and more inaccessible areas; up to 75 % of the material which needs to be moved is overburden today. Spoil heaps and pools of waste water are left behind, where metals and acids are concentrated and contaminate the soil. 60 % of the nickel extracted every year comes from laterite soil under tropical rainforest which is cut down for extraction. Mining destroys the environment – no matter where it is.

Metals are reusable, unlike oil and gas, for which a third and half respectively are extracted offshore for global consumption. “Of course, recycling economy is a good thing,” says Van Nijen, but there must be enough metal in circulation first for it to work. Steel which is installed in a wind farm will stay there for at least thirty years. “A hundred million mobile phones on the shelves won’t solve the problem either.” Humanity will need gigantic amounts of metal in the near future.

According to a study by the American geology service USGS, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone houses more manganese, nickel and cobalt than all land deposits combined. It also contains considerable amounts of copper, and some rare earth metals which are needed for several key technologies. One advantage of these marine deposits, according to experts, is that four metals can be found at once; at least two or three deposits on land must be tapped for the same yield. Nevertheless, marine researchers, such as Matthias Haeckel of the Geomar- Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, warn of the dangers of deep sea mining. “We still don’t know enough to be able to estimate what we might set off down there.”

American researchers could not believe their eyes when in 1979, after hours of travelling through the wasteland of the Eastern Pacific Ridge with ‘Alvin’, the veteran of submersibles, they suddenly came across some rusted funnels with smoke arising from them. Smoke clouds at a depth of 2600 m? It seemed as if they had landed in an underground industrial area. The ambient temperature rose rapidly, and as they drew closer to one of the strange cones, they saw that it was teeming with life. A sheer unimaginable number of bizarre creatures were grazing on these chimneys, as tall as a house; diaphanous shrimp with glowing orange organs, colonies of white crabs, forests of yellow tubes waving in the current with red feather boas streaming out, black mussels, sucking creatures with bristles, transparent fish – not uninhabited at all! The Australian company cast an eye on the black smokers – albeit only the expired ones, without their own animal worlds; much sought-after massive sulphides could be found here. The destruction of these underwater chimneys in the economic zone of Papua New Guinea will be an aggressive intrusion into nature.

In comparison, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone seems deserted. If you could pull out the plug and let the Pacific drain away, you would see flat land, as large as Europe, with sea mountains up to 2000 m high towering over it. On the ground lie black nodules which resemble blackened cauliflower, small and large, at different thicknesses, many half-buried, others out in the open. Although the British Challenger expedition had brought annelids into the light from a depth of 6000 m 150 years ago, with the help of bizarre scooping equipment which they lowered onto the seabed with hemp yarn – a sensation at the time – it was thought for some time that there was little else down there.

At the beginning of 2000, marine researchers finally wanted to get a more specific idea and carried out a type of population census in the oceans, the ‘Census of Marine Life’, financed by an American foundation. Scientists around the globe spent ten years trying to find out about the creatures great and small in the oceans. Over this period, they were able to record around 230,000 species and estimate that there are over a million species living in the seas. Over 500 new crab species were discovered in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone. Actually, says Haeckel, species diversity is very high in the manganese nodule areas. And very special. It is possible that as well as normal sediment, hard substrate – i.e. the nodules that offer an ideal habitat for organisms such as barnacles, anemones, corals and sponges – can also be found down there. Certainly, organisms of a maximum size of 1 mm make up the majority of the population on the deep seabed, such as nematodes or threadworms. “They are all part of a food chain which we do not understand yet,” says Haeckel. This is also why the risk is high.

When the nodule collector Patania II entered the Pacific in spring, the ‘Sun’ was already there, with almost forty scientists from nine European countries on board the research ship. As part of the Miningimpact project, they are researching which risks to the environment the deep sea mining of metallic raw materials presents. And how it could be redesigned to keep damage as low as possible. The researchers are also sending a whole armada of artificial intelligences into Neptune’s kingdom, autonomous sensors, robots equipped with cameras, box corers and photographic slides. Their task is to meticulously record how it looks down there before and after Patania II has been; the composition of the symbiotic communities in the sludge and the columns of water near the floor, the absorption of oxygen by micro-organisms, the currents depending on the wind and tide. “We need a good space utilisation plan at the very least, before we start mining raw materials,” says Haeckel.

One of the burning questions is: how should the nodules be collected in order to stir up as little sediment as possible? As a matter of fact, studies show that around 90 % of the clay-like material is redeposited directly behind the vehicle, but the remnants may drift to the seabed with the current and come to rest outside the mining area, like a cover over the fauna living there. The second important aspect involves the practical establishment of protected areas; one-third of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is already protected, especially in the border area. To be able to identify more protected zones between the licenced areas, the periods and distances over which the larvae wandered must be discovered. And where areas with similar nodule mapping and symbiotic communities to those in the mining area can be found, so that mobile species such as sea cucumbers and starfish can avoid it at least. Because we already know one thing, says Haeckel: “The organisms who need this hard substrate to live will also be removed with the nodules.” The ones who can swim or run can return, albeit in slow motion; it takes at least decades, or even centuries. “Everything happens very, very slowly down there.” A manganese nodule grows by a maximum of 7 mm in a million years.

All of these are topics in which Kris van Nijen has absolute confidence. In recent years, he has been more occupied with biodiversity in the deep sea than he ever could have imagined in his career as an engineer and salesman. “You can’t find any environmental compatibility tests on land which research the impact on microscopically small threadworms,” says Van Nijen. It is right for these tests are done, as he also cares deeply about the planet. However, what also concerns him is the constant lack of appreciation for NGOs and the dismissal of their efforts. Two years ago, GSR installed sensors in the test area with the help of special buoys which measured the temperature of the water at different heights in the columns. The aim was to determine the ideal height at which the sediment that clings to the nodules and is initially brought on board should be returned to the sea. As temperatures vary greatly in the water layers, it is important to do this in the right place, so that the sediment can be re-deposited as quickly as possible.

Before Patania II, there was Patania I, a small version which was used to investigate the condition of the seabed. With Patania II, the collector function is now being tested; it is a negative pressure procedure used to create a vacuum with the help of a water jet above the nodules, which sucks the nodules up. “No diggers, no holes,” says Van Nijen. Before Patania II was shipped out into the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, it was driven back and forth in a pool and collected fake nodules for three months. It finally happened early in the year; the costly vehicle was lowered into the deep sea, held by one thick cable. The first check at 500 m deep – everything fine. The next, everything was going well at a depth of 1500 m, but on Day 3, at 3000 m, the lights suddenly went out. Patania II was no longer responding.

So the whole thing had to be raised back up. Fault analysis, bad moods. “The deep sea isn’t a case of ‘business as usual’,” says Van Nijen. It was quickly recognised that the cable was the problem. The special production made from Kevlar does not just carry Patania II, it is also its umbilical cord; it supplies the robot with energy and enables communication. The cable was detached from the hoist under the enormous pressure as the depth increased, cutting the connection. Even though every individual element had previously been tested in a pressure chamber where 500 bar could be simulated, says Van Nijen, the interplay of all parts could only be tested in reality. For security purposes, it was brought home, where it now stands in a warehouse near Antwerp. Its expensive collector head is masked with a cloth, ‘top secret’; the patent application is still running.

“We’re going to try it again next year,” says Van Nijen. Each test journey costs several million Euros. When test results have been obtained by Patania II, they will be used as a basis for building Patania III. “But the mining code will have to be in place first,” says Van Nijen. Three designs have already been published and discussed by all protagonists. In 2020, ISA wants to submit a final version to its member nations, and the delegates will agree its acceptance. When Patania III has been designed and built, there will be at least three more years of tests. It will be ready by 2025 or 2026 at the earliest, provided that the ISA will accept the work plan from GSR and grant the company a mining licence. “As an investor, you need to take a deep breath,” says Van Nijen. That is nothing for cowboys. “Before you make a single Euro, you must invest 25 years.”

What would Elisabeth Mann Borgese think of all this? She died on a ski holiday in St Moritz in February 2002, aged 83. But it is not hard to imagine her – at her desk in the house by the sea near Halifax, where she taught at the university until the end of her days. Her English setter close by, a glass of whisky in her hand, watching the seemingly unchanging water. A whole lifetime earlier, she had seen the sea for the first time by her father’s side, in Travemünde on the Baltic Sea. For him, it was a leitmotif; for her, it was her life’s work. Work that she approached with a deep love and pragmatism. She may well have also wished that we would leave the deep sea in peace, but if anything had to happen at all, then at least we should leave it as she had suggested to us.