By Brooke Jarvis
Picture a map of the world. Maybe you’re imagining a political map, with colorful nations interlocking like puzzle pieces. Or maybe you see yellow deserts, green splashes of forest, and wrinkled mountain ranges. Either way, your mind’s eye is likely busy with the parts of the planet that rise above its waters. What’s between the continents and islands is merely the negative space that sets them off: vast and mostly empty stretches of blue.
For more than 25 years, Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, has been studying one of these “blank” spaces: the stretch of the Pacific you’d see from an airplane window as you flew the 4,000 or so miles from Central America to Hawaii. To you, this seascape would appear as hours upon hours of uninterrupted waves. But ask Smith what the region, known to scientists as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, is like beneath all that water, and he’ll describe a strange world far beyond the reach of sunlight. It’s “a vast area of rolling hills and valleys, ridges and troughs, punctuated by underwater mountains,” he says, populated by an enormous array of bizarre-looking creatures, both huge and tiny, known and unknown.
And on the open, muddy plains of that world, scattered among those strange communities, are “black, potato-size metal blobs sitting on the surface of the sediment.” They may not look like much, but these blobs are attracting a lot of attention, putting both the region’s anonymity and its inhabitants in jeopardy. Known as polymetallic nodules (or manganese nodules), the deposits represent a submerged fortune in copper, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and other coveted minerals used to make the technologies on which the modern world relies.
In recent years, would-be miners have begun targeting mineral deposits throughout the deep sea, from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the Indian Ocean to the back-arc basins of the southwestern Pacific, in a spurt of activity widely characterized as a new gold rush. So far, the requests from mining companies for exploring the CCZ outnumber all the rest. This stretch of sea won’t be negative space on the map for much longer.
Picture: UCSB, Univ. S. Carolina, NOAA, WHOI. (NOAA photo library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons