Undersea habitats supporting rare and potentially valuable organisms are at risk from seafloor mining scheduled to begin within this decade , according to a new study by a University of Toronto Mississauga geologist.
According to Jochen Halfar, assistant professor of earth sciences at the U of T Mississauga, and lead author of the study, mining of massive sulphide deposits near undersea hydrothermal vent systems could smother and contaminate the fragile flora and flora these vents support.
'Black smokers', or the undersea hydrothermal vents, as they are called, occur in areas where new oceanic crust is formed through undersea volcanic activity. Some biologists argue they represent the origins of life on earth.
Spewing 350-degree Celsius water into the frigid deep-sea environment, they support sulphur-loving bacteria and bizarre worm and clam species. As such, mining and other activities could irreversibly damage this fragile ecosystem.
'We need to act now to establish scientific and legal methods to protect these sensitive ecosystems and minimize the potential environmental impact of this industry. Imposing regulations after operations begin would prove very difficult, and some of the governments in the jurisdictions targeted by this industry have a poor record of mining oversight. The prospects for regulation of underwater mining are not good,' said Prof. Halfar.
A Canadian-based company is currently planning the worlds first commercial undersea exploration for high-grade gold and copper, targeting an area known as the Manus backarc basin off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
'The demand for metals is growing rapidly, and along with the sharp rise in metal prices, we have seen the depletion of metal-rich terrestrial mines. For mining companies and their investors, undersea mining offers high concentrations of ore at relatively low production costs,' said Prof. Halfar.
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