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Scientists to study environmental impacts of deep sea mining in central Pacific ocean

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14 July 2021

The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is set to lead a four-year project to determine the potential environmental impacts of deep-sea mining in the central Pacific Ocean. The Seabed Mining and Resilience To EXperimental Impact (SMARTEX) project – funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and in partnership with UK Seabed Resources, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and seven UK research institutions* – will see NOC scientists research the baseline environment in regions selected for mineral exploration and test the impact of small-scale mining equipment.

In an area of over 6million square km, around 25 times the area of the UK, in the central Pacific Ocean, at depths of almost 5,000 metres, lie a vast mineral resource of polymetallic nodules highly enriched in metals. These are used in the development of new sustainable technologies, the SMARTEX project will provide critical scientific understanding to help reduce the risks of industrial development on the marine ecosystem within this region.

This ambitious field project will see NOC scientists undertake a detailed evaluation of the impact and recovery from test mining disturbances over the last 40 years to better understand the ecosystem and how different components interact and interconnect. Evaluation of the ecosystem’s resistance and resilience to mining will be supported by the capabilities of the NOC-operated vessels and marine robotic systems, alongside robust multidisciplinary analyses integrated with a range of modelling approaches.

Project Lead at the National Oceanography Centre, Dr Daniel Jones, explains: "Abyssal plains are one of the least explored and understood regions of our planet. Measuring the baseline conditions and the changes resulting from mining equipment tests, both new and old, will help build our understanding of this region and inform important societal decisions being made about the sustainable use of our planet’s resources.

"The SMARTEX project will begin with an assessment of the water and its dynamic flows over time and space. This complex physical environment will be monitored for a year to capture its variabilities, particularly storm events near the seabed. We will use this data to make predictions about where the sediment plume generated by mining will be transported and settle back to the seafloor and this will allow us to measure the links between the water, sediment surface and sub sediments, evaluating the natural cycle of nutrients and metals that is essential to maintain the health of this ecosystem.”

Understanding the impacts of test mining and recovery of the environment is a critical part of SMARTEX. Mining will lead to changes in the structure of the seabed, its shape and the nature of the sediments, which will be mapped and linked to biological patterns. The way the seabed life responds to mining will be determined, particularly by understanding the impacts on growth, reproduction and dispersal of individual animals.

The effects on seabed communities, including their diversity, distribution and food webs are also an important part of the planned work. The science team will look at how these organisms function to maintain a healthy ecosystem and try to understand whether this will be disrupted. These changes are likely complex, so a range of models will help understand and predict the consequences of mining activities at larger time and space scales.

Daniel added: "Such predictive power, along with the evidence from our scientific assessment, will provide information that is critical for understanding the potential impacts and ensure robust evidence-based environmental management for sustainable mining activities.”

The NOC is engaged in a variety of studies and projects aimed at understanding the benefits, risks and knowledge gaps associated with deep-sea mining to ensure that mining activities are informed by scientific evidence to minimise the effects on the environment and help guide future developments in this area.