The deep sea contains some of the most pristine ecosystems on our planet and plays a crucial role in regulating the climate.
It has been announced that deep sea mining is expected to begin soon in Jamaican waters. There are a few muffled expressions of concern from the usual quarters. And with good reason.
The mass of the Earth is 6.6 sextillion tons. Its volume is about 260 billion cubic miles. The total surface of the Earth is approximately 197 million square miles. About 71% of our planet is covered by water and only 29% by land. Only three percent of this water is fresh water.
The highest point in the world is Mount Everest at 29,035 feet. The Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest place on Earth. It is 36,201 feet deep. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the summit would still be 7,000 feet below sea level. That should give some idea of the vastness of the oceans.
The deep sea contains some of the most pristine ecosystems on our planet and plays a crucial role in regulating the climate. There is a growing demand for sea minerals as commodity prices soar. New and innovative technologies are creating increasing demands for minerals, such as zinc, cobalt and copper.
The World Bank estimates that more than three billion tonnes of minerals will be needed by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less. The production of battery metals such as lithium and cobalt alone will need to increase nearly 500% by 2050 to meet growing demand for clean energy technologies, such as wind, solar and geothermal power.
The 26th Annual Session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) brought together 30 of the world’s top scientists and legal experts. The primary concern of the participants was: How to sustainably develop marine mineral resources while ensuring the protection of the environment and biodiversity? All right-thinking individuals with a sense of history will ask themselves the same question.
The National Oceanic Administrative Association (NOAA) had this to say about the impact of deep-sea mining on deep-sea ecosystems and habitats:
1) Deep sea mining is still experimental and the impacts on deep sea ecosystems remain unknown. But existing information has led scientists to warn that biodiversity loss will be inevitable and most likely irreversible.
2) In the abyssal plains (underwater plains between 3,000 and 6,000 feet deep), the aspiration of nodules would involve the destruction of the seabed leading to the potential extinction of species. The nodules themselves support complex ecosystems that would be lost. Each mining operation would effectively denude 8,000 to 9,000 square kilometers of deep seabed over a 30-year mining license period.
3) Stripping seamounts of the outer layer of crusts containing cobalt and other metals would destroy deep-sea sponge and coral ecosystems that likely took thousands of years to develop.
4) Exploitation of hydrothermal vents would destroy vent habitats and kill associated organisms before the biodiversity of these unique and fragile ecosystems is fully understood, as well as the direct and immediate impact on the deep marine ecosystems actually exploited.
5) Sediment plumes will be created as mining stirs up the seabed, eventually extending tens of thousands of square kilometers beyond the mine sites. What effect this will have on filter feeders like coral and sponges is unknown. Sewage containing sediment and other mine tailings pumped into the ocean would also form plumes, which could travel hundreds of kilometers or more and create cloudiness in the water, affecting species that use bioluminescence to hunt and find partners.
6) Noise, light pollution and sediment plumes could have a serious impact on species, such as whales, that use noise, echolocation or bioluminescence to communicate, find prey and escape predators.
Land mining has left large parts of Africa looking like a desert. In Jamaica, the bauxite industry has never been credibly and consistently monitored. Natural bauxite ore contains aluminum hydroxide, iron oxide, titanium oxide and reactive silica. All of this has a potentially devastating effect on animal and plant life. These include liver and lung damage, chronic brain syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, eczema and heart problems.
Jamaica ranks fifth among islands in the world in terms of endemic life. There are 28 species of birds, 830 flowering plants, 82 ferns, 27 reptiles, 21 amphibians, and 500 land snails, bats, and butterflies found only in Jamaica. The indiscriminate removal of topsoil destroyed countless amounts of it before we could study it.
The people of Kent Village, along the Rio Cobre, have a sad story to tell of the destruction of all life in the river, which has provided them with a livelihood for generations. The Rio Cobre is now a cemetery.
First World countries, which earned this sobriquet by acquiring untold wealth through the colonial experience that impoverished much of the rest of the world, are now exploring new ways to maintain the way of life that colonialism gave them. . We bought into the myth that their way of life is how success should be measured. Responsible land mining and the development of a sustainable pharmaceutical industry based on our endemic gifts are largely behind us because of mining practices.
I have been asked why I continue to use Singapore and the Cayman Islands as landmarks when commenting on Jamaica’s development. I make no apologies and I will explain why. In 1962, when we gained independence, President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was packing his bags for Jamaica. His country was plagued by corruption, housing shortages and unemployment and Jamaica seemed like the ideal country from which he could draw useful ideas. the Cayman Islands were administered by us. They had no institutions of higher learning. A title in the New York Times — ‘The Islands Time Forgot’ — adequately explains their condition.
Today, without direct taxation, Cayman is a thriving offshore financial center. Over 65 companies are registered in the Cayman Islands as of 2017, including over 280 banks, 700 insurers and 10,500 mutual funds. Although more than 90% of consumer goods must be imported, Caymanians enjoy a standard of living comparable to that of Switzerland.
In the early 1960s, President Kuan Yew thought first and foremost of Jamaica’s record gross domestic product (GDP) of $0.70 billion. Well, last year, the GDP of this country reached an all-time high of $396.99 billion. Singapore is now a high-income economy with a gross national income of USD 54,530 per capita in 2017. The country offers one of the most business-friendly regulatory environments in the world for local entrepreneurs and ranks among the most competitive in the world. Not bad for a country the size of St James which has to import almost everything, including water.
But, as far as Jamaica is concerned, these ships have already sailed. The final frontier for us is what the sea has to offer. Let me report to our leaders that Papua New Guinea has already lost over $100 million of its investment in deep sea mining in its national waters. The government is now concerned about the environmental implications of deep sea mining and in 2019 called for a moratorium on deep sea mining in its own waters. Fiji and Vanuatu also decided to follow.
When bauxite mining began in Jamaica, officials can be forgiven for knowing nothing about the ore, times changed. Before starting deep sea mining, the whole population should be informed of what it entails. Marine science should be taught in all institutions. Our citizens must be qualified to participate in the process. Foreigners should no longer come here to do things for us, but with us.
The most direct impact on mine sites is the destruction of natural landforms and the wildlife they support, the compaction of the seabed, and the creation of sediment plumes that disturb aquatic life. The plumes disrupt the natural movement of seawater, potentially smothering entire ecological communities on the seabed.
I urge our leaders to think carefully about this decision.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer or [email protected]