The stage is set for the modern world’s gold rush and India is at the forefront with a ₹8,000-crore plan1, the ambitious “Deep Ocean Mission.” The new world’s treasure is not inside a mine, cave or under a rock but in the great depths of the deep blue.
Deep Ocean Mining may sound like a term straight out of a sci-fi movie but it was put on the table as a potential substitute to conventional mining as early as the 1960s by J.L. Mero in his book ‘Mineral Resources of the Sea’2. However, due to technological and monetary constraints the plan was put on indefinite hold until recently where nations and private firms with renewed vigour have started developing technology for the same.
The International Sea Bed Authority (ISA) an autonomous body established by the UN to look after the world’s ocean accorded India with the status of Pioneer Investor3 in 1987. India became the first country to be given the exclusive rights to explore and extract this “New-Age Gold.” It has been allotted a site in the Indian Ocean for the same.
Dr.Madhavan Rajeevan, Secretary, Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, announced that the mission will start by October. He said, “We finally have the in-principle approval to go ahead with the mission. Now expenditure plans will be drawn up and circulated for executing programmes and we hope to launch by October 311.”
What is this “New-Age Gold”?
The floor of the world’s seas is scattered with black, potato-shaped polymetallic nodules, which are small spherical objects. The majority of them being found in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These grow at an extremely slow rate, so much so that they require millions of years to form just a millimetre4.
These small, spherical “balls of wonder” are filled with minerals (copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, gold and other precious ores4) that are of great importance to the world. These minerals power the modern world made of modern gadgets ranging all the way from smartphones, computer memory, DVDs and laptops to pacemakers, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting, hybrid cars, and solar panels5.
Why are we doing it?
The government is keen on pushing the country’s technological sphere with ambitious missions like Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan-2 and the general consensus of the public is also a resounding yes to such modern technological initiatives. This opens up an economic playground for India worth 1172 billion USD (Electronics Industry6, 2017).
Deep Ocean Mining also helps in tackling the problem of exhaustion of such minerals from terrestrial mining sites, for instance, copper ore mined has declined7 by 1.8% over the past 12 years and gold mine discoveries has also declined over the past three decades, despite miners pumping more money into exploration, World Gold Council figures show8. This mission will help to meet the country’s growing mineral requirements and increase the country’s self-sufficiency. Currently, India depends on other countries for its minerals requirements, thus making it all the more lucrative.
The prospect is so attractive that even our country’s bitter rival China is eager to cooperate with us and proposed joint mining of the Indian Ocean9. Countries like France, Russia, Germany, Singapore and the UK are all trying their hands at deep ocean mining. This only goes to show that even the big players sense a fortune to be made in Deep Ocean Mining and want to cash in on the opportunity while they still can.
How will it be done?
Based on existing research and designs, the small spherical “balls of wonder” will be harvested by a giant caterpillar-like machine. This machine will roll over the ocean floor, separating the minerals from the mud, sucking them out and transferring them through a tube several kilometres long to the mining ship. Here the minerals will be segregated and transported to land.
What are its environmental impacts?
It has been rightly said that there is no “free lunch,” some kind of a trade-off in a project of such a large scale as this is inevitable. the question that arises here is, is the trade-off worth it?
Indian environmentalist Richard Mahapatra10 fears this could sound the death knell for Earth’s “final frontier”, which he said has been explored only 0.0001 per cent.
Richard Mahapatra is correct in voicing his fear as currently, we have very little to no information on the type of organisms and ecosystem that thrive in the deep depths of the ocean. The seabed is home to a unique and fragile ecosystem which has evolved over millions of years free of light, noise, vibrations, which human intervention would surely bring. This could very well lead to unparalleled devastation of marine ecosystem as was seen in the case of cold water reefs being devastated by deep-sea exploration activities in the 1960s11.
Since these nodules will be harvested by huge robotic machines rolling over the seabed, weighing nearly twice as much as a blue whale, they will leave heavy, long-lasting12 footprints which may be irreparable. Last year, an article in Frontiers in Marine Science concluded13 that the fragile nature of the deep-sea ecosystem, very little to no understanding of deep-sea organisms, limited technology combined with millions of years of evolution, free of human intervention “cannot deliver an outcome where there is no loss of biodiversity.”
In conclusion, on the one hand, we need more thorough research, exploration and understanding of the deep-ocean ecology and habitat, as indiscriminate exploitation of resources has already led to the extinction of many species and the devastation of many habitats known to mankind. On the other hand, if the right technology is developed keeping in mind the safety of the ecological community thriving at such depths while at the same time making it commercially viable and profitable, then we have a potential “gold mine” in our hands which has the ability of pushing our country to its much-awaited “superpower” status.
By Saksham Singh
1st year undergraduate student, Shri Ram College of Commerce
 Jacob Koshy, The Hindu (2019) Centre to launch Deep Ocean Mission in October. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/centre-to-launch-deep-ocean-mission-in-october/article28733519.ece
 International Sea Bed Authority (n.d.) Deep Seabed Mineral Resources. Retrieved from https://www.isa.org.jm/mineral-resources/55
 Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India (2017). India’s Exclusive Rights to Explore Polymetallic Nodules from Central Indian Ocean Seabed Basin Extended by Five Years. Retrieved from https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=170138
 World Ocean Review (2014) WOR 3 Marine Resources – Opportunities and Risks. Retrieved from https://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-3/mineral-resources/manganese-nodules/
 Zion Market Research (2018) Global Consumer Electronics Market Will Reach USD 1,787 Billion by 2024. Retrieved from https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2018/06/29/1531798/0/en/Global-Consumer-Electronics-Market-Will-Reach-USD-1-787-Billion-by-2024-Zion-Market-Research.html
 AME Research (2018) Declining copper ore grades. Retrieved from https://aus.amegroup.com/Website/FeatureArticleDetail.aspx?faId=437
 DW (n.d.) Is the world running out of gold?. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/is-the-world-running-out-of-gold/a-47974833
 The Economic Times (2015) China proposes joint mining of Indian Ocean with India. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/china-proposes-joint-mining-of-indian-ocean-with-india/articleshow/47184858.cms?from=mdr
 Annie Banerjee, Reuters (2018) Race to the bottom? India plans deep dive for seabed minerals. Retrieved from https://in.reuters.com/article/oceans-rights-india/race-to-the-bottom-india-plans-deep-dive-for-seabed-minerals-idINKBN1O50RX
 Ragnarsson S.Á. et al. (2017) The Impact of Anthropogenic Activity on Cold-Water Corals. In: Rossi S., Bramanti L., Gori A., Orejas C. (eds) Marine Animal Forests. Springer, Cham
 Jessica Aldred, The Maritime Executive (2019) The Future of Deep Seabed Mining. Retrieved from https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-future-of-deep-seabed-mining
 Holly J. Niner, Jeff A. Ardron, Elva G. Escobar, Matthew Gianni, Aline Jaeckel, Daniel O. B. Jones, Lisa A. Levin, Craig R. Smith, Torsten Thiele, Phillip J. Turner, Cindy L. Van Dover, Les Watling and Kristina M. Gjerde. (2018). Deep-Sea Mining With No Net Loss of Biodiversity—An Impossible Aim. Frontiers in Marine Science