The Union Cabinet has okayed a five-year plan worth over Rs 4,000 crore to explore the "deep ocean for resources and develop deep sea technologies for sustainable use of ocean resources".
India's interest in studying the deep ocean for resources dates back to the 1980s and, as the country pushes to enter this uncharted territory, three key themes emerge: resources, technology and sustainability. Here's why there is great interest in deep sea mining and what it would entail.
What is deep sea mining?
The part of the ocean that lies below a depth of 200 metres is defined as the deep sea, and the process of extracting minerals from this area is known as deep-sea mining. According to International Seabed Authority, an agency under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for monitoring all activities related to mineral resources in the deep sea, the international seabed is the area that lies beyond the limits of national jurisdiction and represents around 50 percent of the total area of the world's oceans.
What are the highlights of India's Deep Ocean Mission?
With its key objective being to support the country's blue economy initiatives, the deep ocean mission has six primary goals, the Centre said in a statement.
To begin with, the mission will seek to develop the technologies required for exploring and, then, extracting minerals in the deep seabed. As part of this plan, India will develop a manned submersible that can "carry three people to a depth of 6,000 metres in the ocean with a suite of scientific sensors and tools".
Along with this, an integrated mining system will be developed to bring up mineral ores from the deep.
The mission will also drive the creation of ocean climate change advisory services under which "a suite of observations and models will be developed to understand and provide future projections of important climate variables on seasonal to decadal time scales".
A key component of the mission is pursuing technological innovations for exploration and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity through "bio-prospecting of deep sea flora and fauna... and studies on sustainable utilisation of deep sea bio-resources".
When the idea is to mine minerals in the deep sea, there has to be a proper survey of where the deposits lie. Hence, the mission envisages deep ocean survey and exploration to "identify potential sites of multi-metal hydrothermal sulphides mineralisation along the Indian Ocean mid-oceanic ridges".
Finally, the mission will seek to explore the prospects of deriving energy and freshwater from the ocean through "studies and detailed engineering design for offshore ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC)-powered desalination plants.
The Centre said that "exploration studies of minerals will pave the way for commercial exploitation in the near future, as and when commercial exploitation code is evolved by the International Seabed Authority".
What kind of minerals are present in the seabed?
According to the United Nations, there are three types of mineral deposits that are at present deemed suitable for commercial exploitation. Key among these are polymetallic nodules that "occur throughout the ocean and are found lying on the sea floor in the abyssal plains, often partially buried in fine grain sediments". These nodules contain metals such as manganese, iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, lead, zinc, etc.
Then there are polymetallic sulphides, which are also known as seafloor massive sulphides or SMS, that are "rich in copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold".
Thirdly, there are cobalt crusts that can be found at depths of between 400 and 7,000 metres and "are formed through the precipitation of minerals from seawater and contain iron, manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper and various rare metals, including rare earth elements".
What are the challenges of seabed mining?
In its statement on the deep ocean mission, the Centre noted that the "technologies required for deep sea mining have strategic implications and are not commercially available". That means, India will have to develop indigenous technologies via collaboration with "leading institutes and private industries".
As part of these efforts, the Centre said, "a research vessel for deep ocean exploration would be built in an Indian shipyard" while focus would also be on the "design, development and fabrication of specialised equipment, ships and setting up of required infrastructure".
The statement also said that "only a very few countries" have developed deep sea mining capabilities.
What are the environmental concerns?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), deep sea mining can have a deleterious impact on species that inhabit the bottom of the ocean, many of which are yet to be discovered, in three main ways.
First, by disturbance of the seafloor as machines involved in the extraction of minerals "can alter or destroy deep-sea habitats, leading to the loss of species and fragmentation or loss of ecosystem structure and function".
Given that many of the species occupying deep sea habitats are endemic, that is, they are not found anywhere else on the planet, "physical disturbances in just one mining site can possibly wipe out an entire species".
Further, the action of digging into the seafloor will "stir up fine sediments... consisting of silt, clay and the remains of microorganisms", creating plumes of suspended particles which may choke animals or affect how they feed.
There is also the noise and light pollution to contend with in those parts of the planet that are among the quietest and most serene.
IUCN says "species such as whales, tuna and sharks could be affected by noise, vibrations and light pollution caused by mining equipment and surface vessels".
There is also the risk of accidents like leaks and spills of fuel that could endanger deep sea life.