Deep Space

Environment & Ecology / by Maywa Montenegro /

The last great land rush on the planet will be at the bottom of the ocean.

CLICK TO ENLARGE Image by Alain Nogues/Corbis Sygma

On August 2, 2007, Russia dropped a titanium capsule bearing its flag onto the Arctic floor, highlighting its bid for a chunk of seabed property thought to contain billions of dollars in untapped energy. The move snagged media headlines as other nations—including the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway—sped north to make competing claims. Weeks later, hearings began in the US Senate, in which presidents from America’s largest oil, shipping, and telecommunications companies, representatives from the armed forces, and senior Bush administration officials urged the Foreign Relations Committee to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “In the year ahead we could see a historic dividing up of many millions of square kilometers of offshore territory with management rights to all its living and non-living resources on or under the seabed,” said Paul Kelly, president of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. “An adviser to developing states preparing their own submissions said recently, ‘This will probably be the last big shift in ownership of territory in the history of the Earth. Many countries don’t realize how serious it is.’”

Never before has the world’s attention been so fixed on the deep ocean. Inflated oil, mineral, and gas prices, coupled with collapsing global fisheries, are pushing industries into remote seas once too expensive to tap. Pressing concerns about global warming are bringing scientists to explore uncharted depths—both to understand how they influence climate and to take the pulse of abyssal life before human impact irrevocably transforms it. At a time when still so little is known about the ocean’s very nature, it has suddenly become a place of extraordinary geopolitical, economic, and scientific value.

The debate in the Arctic rests on a provision of UNCLOS that gives states an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from their coastlines, unless they can prove—using specific seismic and bathymetric data—that their continental shelves extend beyond this limit. Sometimes called the “constitution of the oceans,” UNCLOS also protects navigation rights, prohibits piracy, mandates sustainable fishing policies, and sanctions scientific research anywhere within international waters.

Though it has long been supported by conservationists, science organizations, mining companies, the oil and gas industry, the Defense and State departments, and the White House, US ratification has been stymied for over 25 years by a few very powerful Republican senators (Jesse Helms and James Inhofe, to name two) who claim it impinges on national sovereignty. Now events in the Arctic have provided a push that will likely result in passage of the treaty before the end of the year, giving the US a seat at the international table for the first time.

For the US, the financial stakes are huge. With its wide continental margins, it stands to gain economic control over additional territory larger than the 48 states combined, with an estimated value of $1.3 trillion in minerals, oil, and fish. Among the 155 nations that have already ratified UNCLOS, at least 12 are currently seeking to extend their undersea territory. For researchers who work on the ocean floor, the landgrab has clear implications. “The immediate concern is access to the region to collect scientific material,” says Rolf Gradinger, an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “If these waters are really officially claimed by a country, then it automatically requires permission from these countries—which is doable, but it requires an additional step.” It is not the increased red tape, however, that elicits the strongest opinions. Trenches will be dug in order to bring oil from offshore onto land, putting a huge stress on the ecosystem, says Jackie Grebmeier, a benthic biologist and a former vice-president on the International Arctic Science Committee. “I’m pretty keenly concerned about those types of operations. Walruses, gray whales, bowhead whales, millions of birds, are all using the same areas for feeding where they’re planning to do the oil development.”

Deep-sea mining is a much newer industry, but has the potential to balloon as oceanographers discover more and more mineral deposits on the vast ocean floor. In 2006, the world’s first two deep-sea mining companies—Nautilus Minerals of Canada and Neptune Minerals of England—both launched operations. This year, India announced a $100 million-per-year initiative to probe farther into its own cobalt- and manganese-rich waters. The hotspots are ocean floor geysers known as hydrothermal vents, where mineral-rich water bubbles up from within the Earth’s crust, accumulating over time into huge chimney-like stacks of gold, silver, copper, manganese, lead, and zinc. Not surprisingly, marine biologists have raised questions about the impacts of mining on the life that inhabits these vents. Unlike oil drilling, however, which is almost exclusively a continental shelf activity, most mining will be done in the mid-ocean, bringing it under jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority, an operational arm of the Law of the Sea. Thus far, says Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, that body has taken a cautious approach with this nascent industry. “We’re in a particularly good position to do scientific research in these areas,” she says, “because we aren’t rushing out to exploit before we’ve had a chance to study them.”

Indeed, though it covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface, much of the ocean remains unstudied. Fewer than 5 percent of the estimated 10 million organisms that inhabit its depths have been identified. Maps of Mars are roughly 250 times better than maps of the ocean floor. “There are just a huge amount of unknowns,” says John Orcutt, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We know the big fishes pretty well; we know almost nothing about the microbial life or their ecology. We don’t know much about the actual detailed morphology of the ocean… or how any of these things vary over time. It’s quite a frontier in almost any direction you look.”

Recent expeditions to the deep indicate there could be much more to study than even scientists suspected. In the past decade, over 2,000 scientists from 80 countries have fanned out across the world’s oceans in an attempt to begin cataloguing the life that exists within. Just this year, researchers combing Antarctica’s Weddell seabed reported over 700 previously unknown species nestled in the polar mud. In a single liter of deep Pacific seawater, microbe hunters counted some 20,000 different kinds of bacteria—most either rare or completely novel. And in sediment cores drilled from the ocean floor, in a layer more than half a kilometer deep, experts unearthed whole communities of microorganisms alive and well at 10 million years old.

From esoteric, pure research findings like these to the technology of crude extraction, science, for now at least, is inextricably tied to all deep-sea ventures—getting there alone requires the participation of oceanographers and highly skilled engineers. By the same token, advances in our understanding of the ocean are being propelled both by those who seek to study the oceans and those who seek to exploit it. Geologists mapping the contours of the ocean floor for territorial claims in the Arctic, for example, have provided some of the first pictures of this remote polar terrain. The advent of deep-sea mining has spurred a rush in studies of hydrothermal vents. The future of the oceans will be determined by precisely how this information is used, and whose interests take precedence in the nexus of industry, politics, science, and law. That the US may finally be ready to ratify an agreement like the Law of the Sea is a hopeful indication that it is willing to take this challenge seriously. In the end, how powers intersect on the ocean floor could end up telling us a great deal about ourselves. “When we enter a new area, it’s always a race,” says Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, “and what it comes down to is the eternal balance in human nature—between what’s in it for me and what’s in it for us.”

Originally published December 20, 2007

Tags climate decision making development geography law policy politics

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