The Battle for the Ocean Floor
By Tom Cassauwers
Modern science has made space travel more accessible than ever before, so much so that billionaires feel safe shooting up into the skies. But look in the opposite direction, and you’ll find a giant void of knowledge. Only 20% of Earth’s ocean floor has been mapped. Vast stretches of our seas are less understood than the surfaces of Mars and Venus. Yet that great unknown is now emerging as an untouched economic frontier. From mining firms to Big Tech, industries are queueing up to explore and exploit the deep seas. So get ready to dive into a world of mystery and wonder, learn about battles bubbling beneath the surface of the oceans, meet individuals making waves down below and revisit the myriad ways in which the sea has inspired everything from myths to the military.
the big stories down below
Digging in the Deep
Mining rare minerals and metals from beneath the ocean could avoid the environmental damage of on-shore mining, and fuel our sustainable transition. In the most common version of deep-sea mining, huge excavation robots scour the seabed for polymetallic nodules, small potato-sized clusters of key minerals such as cobalt and nickel. Resources like these are in high demand for building technologies like new batteries, which will be crucial to electrifying our society. These mining activities, however, might damage deep-sea ecosystems we know very little about. Which is why NGOs such as Greenpeace and even some companies, like BMW, are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
A World Wide Web
As you read this newsletter, your computer most likely is sending and receiving a range of signals that pass through transoceanic internet cables. Such cables connect our globe and make the internet a world wide web. Yet this world is also in flux. Most of the cables were laid in the ’90s and early 2000s by big telecom players. Now, a new generation of companies is entering the field, with U.S. tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon leading the charge.
Governments are increasingly diving into the deep. Several countries are now realizing how crucial oceanic internet cables are. Russian submarines have been known to monitor or even tap undersea cables. And the European Union wants to expand its offering of internet cables to promote its own technological sovereignty. In the meantime, international institutions are trying to keep order. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a little-known Jamaica-based institution related to the United Nations, will in the coming years decide on the future of deep-sea mining. Companies and NGOs are holding their breath.
Dragging a net over the bottom of the ocean is a very common fishing method that rakes in massive amounts of fish while also damaging parts of the seabed and the animals living there. Greenpeace and others are pushing to have this practice, called bottom trawling, made illegal on a wide scale. The practice is also becoming a geopolitical flashpoint. It has sparked tensions between India and Sri Lanka. And Chinese trawlers are developing a bad reputation for (illegal) bottom trawling in seas from the coast of Guinea in West Africa to the coast of Iran, damaging local ecosystems and outcompeting local fisheries. Western interests, such as Europe’s heavily subsidized fishery fleets, are also to blame for emptying African waters.
business bubbling up
Stuck on the Seabed
The Belgian company DEME is one of the world’s biggest dredgers, operating a fleet of more than 100 vessels and bringing in revenue of close to $3 billion in 2018. The company is now expanding into deep-sea mining, hoping its other seaborne skills will give it an edge. Today DEME’s deep-sea mining firm, Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), is one of the best-known companies in the sector — even if the news isn’t always positive. In April one of its mining robots got stranded on the seabed and was recovered several days later.
U.S. aerospace and arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, in partnership with the U.K. government, is also funding a deep-sea mining subsidiary. Just like GSR, it has set its eyes on finding polymetallic nodules to be found on the Pacific seabed, but it has been the target of heavy criticism from nonprofits, most recently related to British government licenses that might not be entirely above board.
Deep-sea mining isn’t, however, a new dream, nor one that’s immune to choppy waters. Founded in 1987, Canadian company Nautilus Minerals was one of the first to enter the scene. It planned to start mining operations off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2010, but after years of financial problems and falling victim to a cyberscam, the company went bankrupt in 2019. It turns out it was out of its depth.
Scanning the Deep
Austin, Texas-based Terradepth, a startup founded by two ex-Navy SEALs, wants to dispatch autonomous submarines to map the deep seas, a space we know very little about. In turn, they hope to sell the data, a proposition that garnered them $8 million in venture capital in 2019.
Trinidadian marine biologist Diva Amon grew up swimming in the waters off the Caribbean island, curious about the creatures she knew existed in the deep — but that she couldn’t see. Now she spends months on ships, diving more than a mile below the surface to decode the mysteries of little-known deep-sea ecosystems and assess the impact mining might have on them. With a focus on the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific, a significant target for deep-sea mining companies, Amon’s research could determine the future of the growing industry.
While Amon works on the science, British attorney Michael Lodge is putting in place the legal rules that will decide whether and how much deep-sea mining is allowed. He heads the ISA, which is expected to develop a global framework for the exploitation of underwater resources and the ecosystems they’re mined from. For years, Lodge has worked with governments as a fisheries and maritime law consultant. He’ll need all of that experience to navigate the ISA through these rough waters.
Google and Facebook aren’t the only participants in the race to build internet cables. Giants beyond the West are jumping in too. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person — and the world’s 13th-richest — wants to build two India-centered undersea internet cables through his firm, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.
Chinese and European fishing vessels might be plundering fish off the coast of West Africa, but they’re not going to go unchallenged. Nigerian researcher Rashid Sumaila, a professor at the University of British Columbia who focuses on fisheries, is also investigating the state subsidies that allow foreign vessels to cut local African fisherfolk out from their own waters.
obsessions that run deep
This famous fictional maritime civilization has aroused humanity’s imagination since it was first mentioned by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in 360 B.C. The idea of a city submerged beneath the sea has inspired more than 2,000 books, including classics like New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, and animated films such as Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and it even served as a model for the Nazis when they plotted world domination.
The bottom of the oceans remains one of the least understood parts of our planet. And nothing spooks us more than the unknown. So it’s hardly surprising that sea monsters have figured prominently throughout human folklore and myths — from the giant Loch Ness monster lurking in the Scottish Highlands to the aspidochelone, a creature whose back looks like an island, tricking sailors into making landfall only to be pulled underwater to their deaths, according to legend.
As humankind began to understand the oceans better, the nature of our fictional representations of the deep seas evolved. French science fiction author Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas captures an epic yet tragic underwater journey on a submarine led by the exiled Captain Nemo.
The classic 2007 video game BioShock set the standard for storytelling in future generations of games, and it did so in a setting at the bottom of the sea. In the story, magnate Andrew Ryan builds an Ayn Rand-inspired, libertarian paradise on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean called Rapture. Before long, however, it descends into dystopia and civil war. The hero of the game discovers Rapture in ruins and must find his way through the destroyed city.
taming the seas
The Submarine’s Humble Beginnings
Our obsession with the mysteries of the ocean floor has not stopped humankind from trying to tame the deep seas. During the American Revolutionary War, the revolutionaries were looking for creative ways to challenge British naval superiority. So they pioneered the first combat submarine. Inventor David Bushnell designed the “Turtle,” a wooden craft that resembled two turtle shells stitched together, with an airtube at the top, and it made several attempts to attach explosive charges to British ships in New York Harbor. The venture failed, and the Turtle sank with its transport ship, but the idea of the military submarine had been born.
The first undersea telecommunications cable was laid in 1858, connecting Ireland and Newfoundland, Canada, across the Atlantic Ocean. The cable was rolled out from the back of a ship, much as it is done today. The results were less than impressive, however. The speed of communication was slow, and the cable failed after three weeks. But as with the first combat submarine, engineers now had a template from which to learn.
Prophet of the Ocean
French naval officer Jacques Cousteau pioneered modern underwater diving during and after World War II, helping to develop the aqualung, which made breathing underwater possible. He then wrote a Jacques Cousteau slew of books and made movies about underwater exploration, stimulating large-scale interest in the deep seas. He even had a hand in building utopian schemes for underwater villages. Later in life, Cousteau became an ardent environmentalist, fighting to protect the oceans from overfishing and pollution.
- Tom Cassauwers, OZY Author Contact Tom Cassauwers