copper, Kobalt, rare earths: Am Boden der Tiefsee liegen Schätze, die eigentlich nur noch geborgen werden müssen. Doch die Kosten und Folgen sind unklar.

By Alexander forehead

The gold is on the floor. Man muss es nur finden. Und herausfräsen. Und einsaugen. Und an die Meeresoberfläche bringen, an Land karren, trennen, reinigen, aufbereiten. Und dann hoffentlich noch etwas Geld damit verdienen.

Rohstoffe vom Meeresboden – seien es Gold, Copper or rare metals such as lanthanum and cobalt – mining companies have captivated. Deep in the ocean, up to 6500 Meters below the surface, spreads out a brave new world of underwater mining: Manganknollen, as the potatoes are on the seabed and only need to be aufgeklaubt. Cobalt crusts, cover the the slopes of submarine mountain ranges – Steinhart, but rich in metals. And sulfide layers, which have been deposited around hot springs on the ocean floor and not just smelly sulfur, but included gold and silver.

It is a huge treasure, which must be raised basically only. And the chances are not so bad: “For a long time, for more than 100years, was mining in the deep ocean no more than an idea”, says Mark Hannington, Head of marine raw materials in Kiel Marine Research Center Geomar. “Now, however, have the economic, political, technical and scientific challenges reached a point, to which they seem doable.”

The knowledge of the deep sea has not kept up with the human activities there

Whether they are also feasible – and whether the degradation is responsible for environmental reasons at all – must show, however, still. Because the deep sea are their treasures reluctant Price: More than half of the Earth is covered by oceans kilometers deep. In them it is cold and dark, the pressure is enormous. The deep waters are also a rich source of nutrients, they store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they are habitat for a variety of very different ways. Each intervention can be fatal.

Much more is on the oceans but also not known. “Unfortunately, our knowledge has not kept up on the deep sea and its ecosystems to the rapid increase of human activities in the water”, says Lisa Levin, Director of the Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research Center at Scripps in California. “And right now, where commercial and strategic interests overtake science, we are preparing the extraction of raw materials?” Levin is, like many of her colleagues, not amused. The researcher calls for caution. “We need a balance between the demand for these raw materials and the protection of ecosystems with their diverse functions.” Only: How might this balance? How can we protect the unknown?

Not digging, seems to be no alternative – Finally, there is at first glance good reasons for the degradation of the seabed. “Worldwide demand for commodities and minerals has risen sharply in recent years, not least because of the economic boom in countries like China or Brazil”, says Hannington. Deeper and deeper the mining must therefore penetrate into the earth's crust, becoming more expensive is the degradation, always difficult it is, at all to find minerals with high quality.

In addition, that the raw materials are very unevenly distributed over the earth. About 40 Percent of the metal cobalt, which is used in batteries, and particularly resistant steels, come to calculations by the World Ocean Review of the DRC – an extremely poor, politically unstable country. In the so-called rare earths, the imbalance is even greater. Come here 97 Percent of China, including the silvery metal lanthanum, which is needed especially for batteries. In the battery of a modern hybrid cars more than ten kilograms of valuable substance may be located. “It is no wonder, if the interest is growing, these rare earths to bring the future of the deep sea”, says Lisa Levin.

Technically seems to stand in the little. “We have recently made great strides in deep-sea robots, we have access to the ocean floor like never before, we get there and perform tasks”, says marine biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover of Duke University in North Carolina American. First companies want to exploit the: The Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals tinkers long at their mining robots. Next year, the white machine will finally be used – in the Bismarck Sea east of Papua New Guinea. There, in 1600 Meters depth, the company has discovered a eleven-hectare sulfide layer. Up to 15 Grams of gold per tonne of degradable lies on the ocean floor three times as much as in typical precious metal deposits on land. When the concentration of copper is even twelve times as high.

To gain access to the treasures, is initially a small robot leveling the ground. A second, large machine will then milling the sulfide layers. A third Tracked sucks them and bring them to a huge underwater pump. From there the sludge is forced through a thick pipe 30Zentimeter to a ship at the surface. He drained, the waste water is filtered and again 1500 Meters pumped into the depths – there, where it came from. The remaining debris is transferred and in a 50 Towed kilometers from the port, where he is to be processed.

Much of the technology is made in the oil- and gas extraction, the searches in similar depths for decades, drilled and welded. Mark Hannington is still skeptical. “Who speaks with engineers, particularly in the oil industry, hears, that the reduction was a purely technical and therefore solvable problem”, says the oceanographer. “However, we have been working at such depths at GEOMAR long enough, to know, that this is a particularly hostile place – for machinery and for any other activity.”

Deplete the manganese nodules and cobalt crusts, there are currently not even machines. For the harvest of the tubers, in the seabed must be plowed to a depth of five centimeters, , the German Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources several years ago, after all, ordered designs. For the removal of crusts, which must be separated with a chisel from the underlying mountains, there are only conceptual studies. According to estimates of the World Ocean Review annually would need more than one million tonnes of cobalt crusts are removed with a thickness of at least four centimeters, therefore well worth the effort.

For Mark Hannington which inevitably leads to the question, whether such a reduction can make economic sense at all – since constantly rising commodity prices are not guaranteed, as currently shows the oil. End of the 1970s, a gold rush had already captured the deep sea. Germany also wanted to reduce the time sulphide layers and manganese nodules. Then the prices of raw materials declined, the deep seabed mining, with its immense effort no longer counted himself. The activities fell asleep.

Today is not the spirit of optimism undimmed. On the one side are the raw numbers, and they sound promising: In a typical sulfide field could, so Van Dover, 1,5 Are million tons of degradable material. With an average copper content of only eight percent of the degradation of the reddish metal would beat 700 Bring millions of dollars, not to mention the additional gold and silver throughout. On the other hand, there are incalculable costs: The chunks must not only be mined and brought to the surface, the engineers they must also be processed, ships ashore, extract the metal, clean it and sell. And they need to be aware, that costs can come to you, they not even imagine today – be it due to technical difficulties or new environmental regulations. “Only when all this is added up, It will be clear, can if really earn money with deep seabed mining”, says Hannington. “All in the industry are waiting anxiously therefore it, that finally someone starts.”

The potential billion are yet no one wants to miss out: 19Licenses to explore marine deposits, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) now awarded, which coordinates the exploitation of deep sea from Jamaica. While Nautilus Minerals wants to dig inside the 200-mile zone of Papua New Guinea and therefore must negotiate mining rights only with the island state (What has attracted for many years), are most other occurrences in international waters. States – but also companies – can purchase a license for the exploration of promising plots at ISA. Germany has already done, as well as France, India and China.

Seegurken, Worms and snails will not be able to escape quickly enough

The manganese nodules these fields may 150 000 His square kilometers; 15 Years are provided for exploring. Following the State may start mining – However, only on half of the surface, the rest should be made available to poorer countries. Thus will the ISA, which was launched by the United Nations in the Convention, her actually fulfill purpose: To manage resources in the sea as a heritage of humanity and as a common resource of all states.

Next year, running the first exploration licenses. States must then decide: Do they want to extend the exploration for five years, Do you want to write off their royalties and abandon the plot or do you actually break down? May be under the legal and ecological conditions of mining then operated, the ISA must specify, however, still. Given the virtually non-existent knowledge of the habitat deepwater marine biologists expect nothing good – especially as the ISA is not an environmental organization. “The International Seabed Authority is primarily used, to get people to mining. Finally, this is the source of income of the ISA”, SALT Van Dover.

11 034 Meters deep, the deepest point of the oceans is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. Said zone from In Hadopelagial 6000 Meter depth prevail resistant temperatures around freezing, at the same time the pressure is more than 1000 times higher than at the water surface. Nevertheless, there are also live there: At the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, the microorganisms are even more active than on a six-kilometer-deep stop nearby.

Although little is known about the ecosystems on the seabed, seems to be one to be clear: The extraction of raw materials will not remain without consequences. The machines, which should reap as manganese nodules, swirl inevitably sediments. Currents can detect these clouds, carry away and deposited in other regions. Sensitive organisms, seated on the ground in particular animals, be covered and die. Even sea cucumbers, Worms and snails, who can not escape fast enough before the plow, have no chance. Many frightened animals eventually caught the nipple, which is to collect the tubers.

“If we lose the tubers, We also lose the species, the only live there”, SALT Van Dover. they are coming, if any, only very slowly: In a large-scale experiment had German ocean research before 25 Years plowed several square kilometers wide area in the Pacific. Then they checked at regular intervals, that crawls and flies there. Only after seven years, they were able to report the same density of soil organisms again. Some species, however, never returned. This year the researchers want to look again. Even with the seamounts, which are sometimes damaged by trawls, are 30 Available years after the destruction of fewer species than previously.

One of the demands of marine biologists is therefore: We need protected areas, whose ecosystem is akin to the Mining Lot. Displaced species could establish themselves there; unique animals would not disappear completely, if their habitat is destroyed elsewhere. “If we know, that there are representative protected areas, we can mine”, sagt Linwood Pendleton, Ecologist at Duke University. “If we are uncertain, we should not even begin it.”

Another idea: Raw materials should be removed only in small strips, so living beings, at least have the chance, rapidly to colonize the devastated soil of the right and left again. Nautilus Minerals will also resettle worm before Papua New Guinea, artificial substrate on the seafloor spreading and renature a portion of the degraded area – while another part is left untreated for comparison purposes.

Expiring Licenses, new regulations, first mining projects, Environmental Studies: “Everything comes together in the next three to five years. Then we will hopefully know, whether deep seabed mining is feasible”, Geomar researcher says Hannington. For Cindy Lee Van Dover sounds like an opportunity and a threat: Before the big money flowed, must deliver results, the deep-sea research – and these results should in meaningful, open well-considered regulations, asks the biologist. Afterwards it is too late.

“If we want to have a really advanced system for the protection of the underwater environment, we must act now”, SALT Van Dover. “I want, that people say in a hundred years: They then, based on the available scientific data, set the right course – and are not asleep at the wheel.”

Those: Alexander Stirn, Goldgrund, Southgerman newspaper, 1.More,2015

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