Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents: Protecting Hideways Beneath the Waves

by Bill Chameides | February 9th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Like an underwater Atlantis for tubeworms, mussels, clams and loads of other marine animals, hydrothermal vents are unique, thriving ecosystems that are threatened by deep-sea mining. (Photo: NOAA)

There are veritable gardens under the sea. Can they be saved?

Way back in 2008 and 2009, the consensus was that a lack of regulations was what got us into economic hot water. But times have changed, and regulations have become a dirty word — the thing, many say, that is holding our economy down. Everyone, it seems, even the president, is calling for a rollback on regulations.

But Cindy Van Dover, director of the Duke Marine Lab of the Nicholas School of the Environment, is swimming against the tide. In a comment published last week in the journal Nature, Van Dover called for new regulations to govern ocean-bottom mining in international waters.

She begins her piece with a tip of the hat to the visionary folks in Congress way back in 1872 who stopped the rush of gold prospectors hoping to carve up the Yellowstone geyser basin — a remarkable hydrothermal system — and who “saw fit to leave this wilderness pristine for future generations” by making it the world’s first national park.

In Van Dover’s view the world faces another such fork in the road, only this time the threatened wilderness is mineral-rich, deep-sea hydrothermal vents — each a deep-sea Yellowstone located at the bottom of the ocean. These vents, truly unique environments that were first discovered way back in 1977, are found in all ocean basins along volcanically active plate boundaries known as spreading ridges where new ocean crust is formed. (See map [pdf].) Believed to be a spot where life on Earth first evolved, the vents are fed by mineral-rich, superheated waters, and characterized by what we would deem a most hostile environment: high pressures, very high temperatures, and no sunlight.

However, while we might find the environment hostile, it is nevertheless home to “luxuriant communities of beautiful and strange invertebrates in an otherwise barren seascape.” Suffice it to say, we are just beginning to learn about these communities and how they work and what their role is in maintaining the ocean’s biological diversity and function.

Chimneys like those pictured here form when minerals precipitate out of the hydrothermal vent fluids. (Source: NOAA)

But there is a problem. In addition to being a unique biome, hydrothermal vents have valuable mineral deposits that include metals such as copper, zinc, silver and gold. And with commodity prices on the rise along with new technologies that enable work at great ocean depths, companies are now tooling up to mine these deposits.

And mining for minerals at the ocean bottom doesn’t mean just scooping up minerals.

Case in point: one company, planning to start open-cut mining within the next few years, calls for “removing mineral ores (and organisms) to an estimated depth of 20–30 metres [i.e., as much as 90 feet] over an area equivalent to about 10 football fields.” What might be the impact of such an operation on hydrothermal communities throughout the region? No one knows.

Van Dover believes we need to find out before we allow deep-sea mining in international waters. She opines that “there is an urgent need to establish conservation guidelines before mining begins in international waters, and to place these guidelines in functioning governance and regulatory frameworks.”

Pieces of the governing puzzle are already in play with agencies such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the International Marine Minerals Society as well as a mining company — Nautilus Mineralstrying to conceptualize how such a regulatory regime would function.

But a whole lot needs to fall into place before specific regulations are established much less enforced.

Van Dover concludes with the following words, which I will take the liberty of closing with as well:

“It is easy to see what would have been lost had Yellowstone been turned over to miners instead of park rangers. Kilometres of overlying water make it harder to see what would be lost in the deep sea. There are creatures of extraordinary beauty down there, exquisitely adapted to their environment. Humans may choose to threaten these habitats for economic or strategic advantage, and to feed lifestyles that depend on relentless demand for minerals and other resources. But we should make these choices on the basis of an understanding of what we may lose as well as what we may gain.”

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