The California Sunday Magazine
On the nights before a dive, Cindy Lee Van Dover likes to stand on the deck of her research ship, looking down into the water the way an astronaut might look up at the stars.
She’s preparing herself to do an extraordinary thing: climb into a tiny bubble of light and air and sink to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the sparkling waters of the surface a mile and a half above her.
She makes the trip in a three-person submersible called Alvin, famous for discovering the underwater hot springs known as hydrothermal vents and for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. Alvin sinks for more than an hour. The view from its portholes moves through a spectrum of glowing greens and blues, eventually fading to pure black. The only break from the darkness comes when the sub drops through clusters of bioluminescence that look like stars in the Milky Way. They’re the only way for Van Dover to tell, in the complete darkness and absence of acceleration, that she’s sinking at all.
At last, as Alvin approaches the seafloor, the pilot turns on the external light. Van Dover peers hard, eager for her first glimpse of a strange land of underwater volcanoes and mountain ranges, of vast plains and smoking basalt spires.
It’s the spires — the teetering chimneys that top hydrothermal vents — and their inhabitants that Van Dover has come to see. The animals that live on vents fascinate biologists like her because we understand so little about them. Scientists call them “alien” with only slight exaggeration: Their most basic functions are unlike those of all other life on Earth, and astrobiologists study them to make better guesses about where to look for extraterrestrial life and what it might be like. “It allows us to see how life plays out on the next best thing to another planet,” says David Grinspoon, chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress.
But scientists aren’t the only ones attracted to this strange world. The same vents that support colonies of undulating tubeworms, giant clams, eyeless shrimp, and hairy, tennis-ball-size snails are also conduits for valuable metals fresh from the Earth’s interior. Vents form where seawater seeps into fissures in the Earth’s crust and reacts with the heat of magma, emerging transformed: acidic, boiling hot, and laden with chemicals and minerals. As the water cools, those minerals precipitate out, leaving behind concentrations of metals — gold, copper, nickel, and silver, as well as more esoteric minerals used in electronics — that make the richest mines on dry land look meager.
And where there’s metal, there are miners, even at the bottom of the world.
As an industry, deep-sea mining is brand-new. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which oversees all mining in international waters, was formed in 1994, but by 2011, it had issued only seven exploratory licenses. By the end of this year, it believes that number will jump to 26, with the first license for commercial mining expected as soon as 2016. Only one country, Papua New Guinea, has issued a permit for commercial-scale deep-sea mining in its own waters, though India, Japan, China, and South Korea also have projects in the early stages , and more than a dozen Pacific island nations, whose tiny populations and bureaucracies are dwarfed by their massive marine territories, are scrambling to figure out how to manage mining. Even for an industry that’s seen plenty of false starts, says Michael Lodge, deputy to the secretary-general of the ISA, there is now “a hell of a lot of activity.”
Picture: Pacific Ring of Fire 2004 Expedition. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; Dr. Bob Embley, NOAA PMEL, Chief Scientist. (NOAA Photo Library: expl0036) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons