A worldwide undersea gold rush is coming

An undersea gold rush could be coming soon with the rising cost of minerals and advancements in technology opening the seafloor to mining.

Multinationals are eager to exploit undersea mineral deposits

An undersea gold rush could be coming soon with the rising cost of minerals and advancements in technology opening the seafloor to mining - environmental concerns notwithstanding.

The United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) last week published a study on what frameworks would be necessary to ensure that mining is done responsibly. Commercial mining operations could begin as soon as 2016, but ISA acknowledged that there will be "inevitable environmental damage" and identified a "Catch-22" where firms have not demonstrated appropriate competency and skills but must first start mining to gain them.

The study says that the potential for exploiting undersea reserves is higher than any time in history. Incentives for undersea mining are rising metal prices, the high profitability of mining companies, declining yields of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits (over years of mining), as well as new advancements in the machinery that's used to extract and process mineral-rich rocks from the seabed. China has already designed a hotel-sized nuclear-powered undersea mining station .

Mining would take place in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. ISA licensees include well-known industrial giants like Lockheed Martin, BBC News's science editor David Shukman wrote in his report on the study. ISA has identified vast undersea mineral deposits and will ensure that developing nations receive a share of the profits from mining operations under its auspices.

This undersea gold rush is prompting ISA to rapidly prepare a regulatory regime. "Doing so requires the development of a strategic framework that allows the Authority to have in place the necessary mandates, organizational capacities (technical and administrative), policies and regulations (implementing rules and regulations) and capacities (fiscal, manpower and specialties)," ISA noted in its executive summary.

ISA will attempt to "broadly identify the major organizational, fiscal and research recommendations that must be addressed, over the next three to five years, as part of an overall strategic plan to ensure the ability of the Authority to meet the challenge."

Despite these preparations, some experts dispute whether seabed mining should be permitted. The BBC's Shukman interviewed University of Southampton professor Dr. Jon Copley who stated, "I don't think we own the deep ocean in the sense that we can do what we like with it."

"Instead we share responsibility for its stewardship. We don't have a good track record of achieving balance anywhere else - think of the buffalo and the rainforest - so the question is, can we get it right?" Copley said.

At what point does the world realize that its resources are finite? Still, there's always asteroid mining .

(image credit: Nautilus Minerals mining operation design for Papua New Guinea)

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