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International experts gather to discuss deep sea resources

Over 70 international experts gathered May 11-13, 2015, at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Geobiology (CGB). Coming from 14 different countries, they represented a cross-section of different lines of intervention, including geology, environment, biology and policy. The workshop was entitled, "From Seafloor Hydrothermal Systems to the Sustainable Exploitation of Massive Sulfide Deposits: Myths and Realities of the Deep Sea".

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deep sea mining workshop
Larry Cathles, Cindy Van Dover, Rolf Birger Pedersen, Robert Embley (from left to right)
Photo:
Cedric Hamelin

Workshop host and leader, Associate Professor Filipa Marques, CGB
Workshop web site

Synergy potential

An international workshop provides researchers and students with an opportunity to exchange ideas and results. Sharing and comparing different approaches often stimulates reflections about new research directions. This potential was increased by the extremely multidisciplinary nature of these workshop participants.

Advances in technology are making one the last frontiers on Earth more accessible: the deep sea. With knowledge and reflection, we have a chance to optimise our exploration and exploitation.

  • What biological and mineral resources exist in the deep sea?
  • What potential importance do these resources have for supporting continued human development on Earth?

Deep sea mining is a case in point. Specialised mining companies have already been engaging in preliminary studies and some, for example, Nautilus, are set to begin production within a few years.

  • Are we ready?
  • Are the regulatory, environmental, legal and more structures in place?

Marques gathered researchers from different institutes and disciplines, together with policy makers from different organisations, to seriously debate the future of ocean-mining.

  • Should we engage in deep sea mining?
  • Can we justify the potential environmental damage and risks?
  • Do we need to access these resources to sustain our current and future development?

Setting the stage

The workshop began with a series of 4 open lectures that provided important background information and covered the history of deep sea exploration since the first hydrothermal vents were discovered in the 1970s. Such open lectures provide opportunities for cross-disciplinary encounters – something that is particularly relevant when considering resource exploitation.

The first speaker, Larry Cathles, from Cornell University in the US, is concerned about how ocean resources can be used to sustain humanity over the next millennia. More about his work in this area can be accessed here. The next speaker was Cindy Van Dover, a deep sea biologist from Duke University in the US. Van Dover is concerned about documenting the biological resources in deep sea environments before beginning exploitation activities. Steve Scott, from the University of Toronto, Canada, is a geologist and has been responsible for identifying that the geological processes that occur at modern seafloor hydrothermal systems are analogous to those that have formed ancient volcanogenic sulphide deposits found on land. The final speaker, Robert Embley, from NOAA, US, is an expert on oceanic ridge systems and, like the others, has extensive experience with both manned and un-manned submersibles.

From geology to biology to policy …

Days 2 and 3 of the workshop involved both talk and poster presentations from a number of the participants. There were representatives of a team from GEOMAR in Germany, who have considerable seafloor exploration, mapping, database and modelling expertise. Their skills are vital for assessing seafloor mineral resources. Speakers from New Zealand and Japan shared their experiences on arc and back-arc ridge settings. The South Pacific involves quite a different geology from that of the mid-ocean ridge system in the Atlantic, but the lessons learned provide valuable “take home” messages. One of conclusions voiced by both Cornel de Ronde and Malcolm Clark from New Zealand, was that each system / site has unique characteristics to be considered.

Portugal is currently prioritising seafloor exploration and potential exploitation as being an integral part of their current marine identity policy. Manuel Pinto de Abreu, Secretary of State for Sea Affairs, shared some of the issues the government is considering. A number of other international regulatory agencies were represented including the International Seabed Authority, the Institute for Advances in sustainability Studies, the Environmental Law Institute and the UN’s environmental programme, GRID. Speakers also referred to the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Kristina Gjerde was one of the speakers. She is actively involved in ocean policy making initiatives. She recently gave a TED talk on this topic.

Begun in 2006, Norway’s MAREANO programme has been actively surveying Norway’s continental shelves. Its goal is to establish baselines for this relatively unknown environment. The information is gathered in databases that make it accessible to a variety of users. It is a model that could be applied to systematise deep sea exploration.

Need for legislation

Ida Helene Steen, from CGB, highlighted the importance of deep sea biological resources. The genetic potential of organisms adapted to deep sea challenges may help us to solve and simplify important biochemical issues facing society today. She cited 2 firms, BIOmega and Borregard as examples.  However, she underlined that, in the case of Norway, research and development for this activity is hampered by the lack of a legal framework. She fears that, instead of being able to exploit the advantages of unique deep sea environments, Norwegian researchers will lose their competitive edge.

Natural laboratories

Hans Tore Rapp, also from CGB, presented the unique fauna from Norway’s arctic hydrothermal vents. One example he highlighted was the fauna around Jan Mayen, where there are high levels of CO2 in the venting fluids. The environment provides a kind of natural laboratory for the effects of acidification.

Disseminating knowledge to society

In keeping with UiB’s mission and goals, this Deep Sea workshop was an excellent opportunity for researchers to both impart and reflect on the most recent research scientific results. It provided dialogue and idea exchange opportunities with policy-makers and stake-holders. The synergy of such a diverse meeting has real potential to address the challenges of a new global frontier. It also fulfils CGB’s mandate, as a Centre of Excellence, to generate and share new fundamental cross-disciplinary knowledge that significantly impacts such a new international research frontier. Its open sessions shared the discussion and information with the wider university community and any interested members of the public.