Deep-sea mining could find rare elements for smartphones but will it destroy rare species?

© Photo: NOAAA hydrothermal vent on the seafloor.

In September of 2017, The Japan Times reported that Japan had successfully mined zinc, gold, and other minerals from a deep-water seabed off the coast of Okinawa. It turned heads in the mining industry, and though the operation was just an initial trial, it pointed the way toward what could become a massive deep-ocean mining industry. And that is sparking renewed concerns among scientists about how this new gold rush will affect the unique creatures living off these ore deposits.

The Okinawa deposits, located over 5,000 feet below the sea surface, are formed by underwater geysers called hydrothermal vents. These are chimneys on the seafloor that spew out hot plumes rife with zinc, nickel, copper, and other rare elements; when the plumes collide against the cold seawater, the metals fall out and accumulate on the seafloor. There are more than 500 hydrothermal vents all over the world, says deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler, and they represent some of the last untapped deposits of precious metals on Earth.

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As such, countries and mineral extraction companies all over the world have been gearing up for years to tap into these underwater treasure troves, whi....

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