Scientists believe life on earth may have begun in deep sea vents such as the ones discovered in the Lost City, an area deep on the sea floor in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The hydro-thermal vent system in which warm alkaline waters from the rocks react with seawater and create hydrocarbons – the building blocks of life – is the only such formation yet discovered in the world.
But the International Seabed Authority – a UN organisation charged with managing the use of the seabed in the high seas – has now allotted the Lost City, along with 10,000 sq km of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, to Poland to explore for mining.
Deep sea mineral extraction is regarded as one of the most important global industries of the future, with billions of dollars of gold, copper and other key metals lying on the seabed.
However, scientists have warned of the possibility that miners may inadvertently destroy precious species and geological structures in their quest for minerals.
Gretchen Früh-Green, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, was the scientist who first discovered the Lost City, on an expedition in the year 2000.
She told Sky News she and her colleagues had written a letter of concern to the ISA but had not received a reply.
She said: “We could destroy this place before we’ve understood it – before we can really appreciate the significance of these unique white towers and these very strange fluids that are coming out of the ocean floor.
“The significance of that for understanding the origin of life, for understanding processes in early Earth.
“It’s our history, it’s the Earth’s history, and if we perturb it we don’t know how fast it will recover, or what influence the perturbation would have on ocean chemistry.”
The ISA, which is based in Kingston, Jamaica, confirmed that the Lost City was part of the area designated to Poland for seafloor exploration.
But its Secretary-General, Michael Lodge, told Sky News that there was no suggestion that it would damage the site.
“The Lost City is a site of scientific interest,” he said. “It’s been explored and studied scientifically for many years. There is no suggestion that Poland is necessarily going to mine the Lost City.”
He said that the ISA may introduce rules to prevent miners from exploiting areas of scientific or ecological interest but that those rules were still in the process of being written.
“We’re actually actively engaged with the scientific community. The major element of exploration which applies to Poland as it does to others is to conduct environmental studies.
“So actually we expect that we’ll find out much more about the Lost City and other similar sites over the next few years.”
Nonetheless, some have asked questions over whether the ISA has been transparent enough about the process, or has made the requisite environmental checks.
Deep sea mining is expected to become a commercial reality next year, thanks to advances in the autonomous technology necessary for working on the seafloor.
The UK is seen as a leader in the industry, with one Gateshead-based company, SMD, developing the machines to be used in an upcoming project in Papua New Guinea.
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And with a global push under way to develop more electric vehicles – which are reliant on metals found in significant quantities under the sea, and increasingly scarce on land – pressure on the ISA is only set to increase.
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