A recent study of underwater noise pollution from seabed mining operations, which included scientists from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, found that noise from a single mine could travel approximately 311 miles in mild weather conditions, which could affect understudied species living in the deep sea.
Scientists from UH-Mānoa, the Oceans Initiative, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan and Curtin University in Australia contributed to the study. The results were published in Science.
“Our modeling suggests that mining noise could impact areas far beyond the actual mine sites, including preservation reference areas, which must, under the proposed mining regulations, not be affected by mining,” Craig R. Smith, professor emeritus of oceanography at UH-Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said in a press release.
Smith says the study’s findings may require rethinking environmental regulations, including the number of mining operations allowed in the Clarion-Clipperton area, an area spanning 1.7 million square miles between Hawaiʻi and the Mexico which is a major center of interest for deep sea mining.
Seventeen entrepreneurs are exploring the possibility of exploiting the Clarion-Clipperton area. If each of the contractors launched just one mine, around 2.1 million square miles – an area larger than the European Union – would have high noise levels. Not only could this level of mining activity have incalculable impacts on noise-sensitive species, but it could also undermine attempts to preserve no-mining-impact zones, or preservation reference zones, to be used for scientific comparisons.
“What surprised me the most was how easy it would be for the sound of one or two mines to impact nearby areas that have been set aside as experimental controls,” said Rob Williams, co-founder of Oceans Initiative, in the press release. “With so many unknowns, we need a careful comparison of these preservation reference areas to sites where mining is taking place in order to understand the impacts of mining. But the noise will cross the boundaries between preservation areas and mining sites.
Although mining companies are already testing smaller-scale prototypes of deep-sea mining systems, they have yet to share their underwater noise pollution data. The Science article was to use noise levels from better-studied industrial activities, such as oil and gas industry vessels and coastal dredges, as placeholders.
Actual noise levels from deep sea mining may vary once data becomes available. However, Andrew Friedman, project manager of Pew’s seabed mining project, said they were more likely to be superior to proxy data because the actual seabed mining equipment is much larger and more powerful than proxies.
“These are likely conservative estimates,” Friedman said in the press release.
Friedman said the study “highlights how much remains unknown about the potential impacts of mining, not just on the deep ocean, but throughout the water column.”
“The deep sea is potentially home to millions of species that have yet to be identified, and the processes that exist there allow life on Earth to exist,” said Travis Washburn, deep sea ecologist at Advanced Industrial Science. and Technology in Japan, in the press release. “While much work is still needed to determine the extent and scale of the environmental impacts of deep sea mining, with careful study and management, we have a unique opportunity to understand and mitigate the human impacts on the environment before they occur.”