Many valuable minerals, including nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, have been found on the deep sea floor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. Deep sea mining could soon begin in this region – potentially permanently destroying unique ecosystems. A study now shows that more than 5,000 species are found in the region, most of which have yet to be scientifically described and not yet discovered in any other region. The findings provide a basis for a better assessment of the potential environmental impacts of deep sea mining.
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is an area of nearly six million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean that stretches between Hawaii, Mexico and Oceania. To date, this deep-sea region is one of the last largely pristine regions of the world’s oceans. But this could change soon. Because the sea floor is rich in so-called manganese nodules. These are accumulations of minerals, including in particular nickel, cobalt and copper in addition to manganese. Since the area is located in international waters, it is under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This has already issued licenses, which initially allowed the exploration of raw material reserves and will also regulate mining rights in the future. The first beta tests of the demolition took place in 2021. Without further regulations from the ISA, commercial mining could start as early as this year.
However, scientists and environmental organizations warn that deep-sea mining could cause permanent damage to seafloor ecosystems. “Basic knowledge of the biodiversity in this region is essential to effectively managing the environmental impact of potential deep-sea mining activities, but until recently such knowledge was almost completely unavailable,” explains a research team led by Muriel Rabone of the Natural History Museum. in London. Although there have been several research missions to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, results to date have only provided information on small sections of the region and have not formed a comprehensive picture.
Rabun and her team have now compiled and consolidated, for the first time, the research results available to date. “We have created the Clarion-Z Rift Zone Checklist, which is an inventory of the biodiversity of marine organisms on the deep sea floor,” they report. “This could be crucial for future environmental impact assessments. Based on the research results collected, researchers estimate that at least 5,578 different species live on the sea floor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Only 438 of them have been scientifically described and named so far.”
Only eight percent of the known species
“So 92 percent of the species identified in the Clarion-Clipperton Rift Zone are new to science,” the research team wrote. Only six species have been spotted elsewhere, including sea cucumbers, nematodes, and carnivorous sponges. About one in four arthropod species are arthropods, and almost one in five is spandex. There are also many roundworms, echinoderms, and sponges. “There are some wonderful species out there. Some sponges are like classic bath sponges, others are like vases,” Rabone says. “We share this planet with all this amazing biodiversity, and we have a responsibility to understand and protect it.”
In the researchers’ view, the study could form a foundation when it comes to recording biodiversity in more detail in the future. Our study provides the first regional estimates of species diversity for all size classes. While these estimates are subject to significant uncertainties, they provide a starting point that can be developed further as additional data and approaches become available,” they wrote. “With mining potentially imminent, the application of biodiversity data to environmental management, particularly to assess species extinction risk , is an important consideration for the Clarion-Clipperton Rift Zone.” It is therefore important to collect additional data on the extents and rarities of species. “Reliable data and insights are essential to shed light on this unique region and ensure its future protection from human impact.”
Source: Muriel Rabone (Natural History Museum, London, UK) et al., Current Biology, Available here. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.04.052
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