A black smoker of a seafloor massive sulphide system.
Image courtesy Nautilus Minerals

Will Deep-sea Mining Yield an Underwater Gold Rush?

Some environmentalists say the lure of precious minerals threatens ocean life and local cultures.

Meghan Miner
for National Geographic News
Published February 1, 2013

A mile beneath the ocean’s waves waits a buried cache beyond any treasure hunter’s wildest dreams: gold, copper, zinc, and other valuable minerals.

Scientists have known about the bounty for decades, but only recently has rising demand for such commodities sparked interest in actually surfacing it. The treasure doesn’t lie in the holds of sunken ships, but in natural mineral deposits that a handful of companies are poised to begin mining sometime in the next one to five years.

The deposits aren’t too hard to find—they’re in seams spread along the sea floor, where natural hydrothermal vents eject rich concentrations of metals and minerals.

These underwater geysers spit out fluids with temperatures exceeding 600ºC. And when those fluids hit the icy seawater, minerals precipitate out, falling to the ocean floor.

The deposits can yield as much as ten times the desirable minerals as a seam that’s mined on land.

While different vent systems contain varying concentrations of precious minerals, the deep sea contains enough mineable gold that there’s nine pounds (four kilograms) of it for every person on Earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service.

At today’s gold prices, that’s a volume worth more than $150 trillion dollars.

Read more: Will Deep-sea Mining Yield an Underwater Gold Rush? — National Geographic.

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