IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


4th July, 2023 Science and Technology

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Context: The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is a UN agency that oversees the exploitation of the ocean floor. It is currently working on a set of rules that would allow countries and companies to mine the seabed for minerals and metals that are essential for green technologies.


  • The world is facing a growing demand for minerals and metals that are essential for the transition to a low-carbon economy. However, the supply of these resources from land-based sources is limited and may not meet the future needs of humanity.
    • This is why some countries and companies are looking at the possibility of extracting these resources from the depths of the ocean, where vast deposits of polymetallic nodules, seafloor sulphides and cobalt crusts are found.

What is Deep-sea mining?

  • Deep-sea mining is the extraction of minerals and metals from the seabed, usually at depths of more than 200 meters. Deep-sea mining has the potential to provide valuable resources for various industries, such as renewable energy, electronics, and biotechnology.
    • The deep ocean contains vast amounts of minerals and metals that are vital for various industries and technologies, such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, and consumer electronics.
  • Deep sea mining is not without risks and uncertainties. The environmental impacts of such activities are largely unknown and could have irreversible consequences for the marine ecosystems and biodiversity that sustain life on Earth. Moreover, the legal and regulatory framework for deep sea mining is still under development and faces many challenges in ensuring that it is fair, transparent and effective.

How is deep-sea mining regulated now?

  • The legal framework for deep sea mining is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994.
  • UNCLOS establishes that the Area and its resources are "the common heritage of mankind" and should be used for peaceful purposes. The Area refers to the seabed and ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction, which covers about half of the world's oceans.
  • According to UNCLOS, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the intergovernmental organization responsible for regulating deep-sea mining activities in the Area. The ISA issues exploration and exploitation contracts to states or entities sponsored by states and sets environmental standards, technical guidelines, and financial terms for deep-sea mining.
    • The ISA also has a mandate to ensure that the benefits of deep-sea mining are shared equitably among all countries, especially developing states.
  • However, UNCLOS does not cover deep-sea mining activities within national jurisdiction, which are governed by domestic laws and regulations of each coastal state. This means that there is no uniform or consistent approach to deep-sea mining regulation in different regions of the world.

There are three main types of deep-sea mining

Polymetallic nodule mining

  • This involves collecting nodules, which are potato-sized lumps of minerals, from the seabed using a hydraulic suction system or a mechanical grab. The nodules are then transported to a surface vessel or a subsea processing unit.

Polymetallic sulphide mining

  • This involves extracting sulphides, which are mineral formations around hydrothermal vents, where hot water rich in minerals gush out of the seafloor. The sulphides are either cut or broken off using a robotic device or a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and then lifted to the surface using a pump or a lifting system.

Cobalt-rich crust mining

  • This involves scraping or cutting off crusts, which are thin layers of minerals that cover seamounts or underwater mountains. The crusts are then lifted to the surface using a similar method as for sulphides.

Why Deep-sea mining has been attracting increasing attention?

Depletion of land-based resources

  • As the demand for minerals and metals grows, the supply of these resources on land becomes more limited and expensive. Deep-sea mining presents an opportunity to access new sources of valuable resources that are abundant and relatively untapped in the deep ocean.

Growing demand for minerals

  • The global demand for minerals and metals is expected to increase significantly in the coming years, driven by the growth of industries such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, and consumer electronics. For example, cobalt is a key component of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in electric vehicles and smartphones.
  • The global demand for cobalt is projected to increase by 460% by 2050. Similarly, rare earth elements are essential for various technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and magnets. The global demand for rare earth elements is projected to increase by 35% by 2030.

Economic benefits

  • Deep-sea mining has the potential to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and generate revenue for governments and companies. According to a study by the World Bank, deep-sea mining could generate up to $16 billion per year by 2030.
  • Deep-sea mining could provide an alternative source of income for developing countries that have limited land-based resources but have access to large areas of seabed under their jurisdiction.

Strategic importance

  • Developing a domestic supply of these resources is seen as strategically important for many countries, especially those that depend heavily on imports from other countries. For example, India imports more than 80% of its cobalt and rare earth metals from China, which dominates the global production and supply of these resources.
    • By exploring and exploiting its seabed resources, India could reduce its dependence on foreign sources and enhance its national security and defence capabilities.

Deep sea mining has several potential benefits for various sectors and stakeholders

  • Energy: Deep sea mining can provide resources for renewable energy production, such as cobalt and nickel for batteries, and tellurium for solar panels.
  • Technology: Deep sea mining can provide resources for high-tech industries, such as rare earth elements for electronics, and platinum for fuel cells.
  • Medicine: Deep sea mining can provide resources for medical applications, such as gold and silver for nanotechnology, and manganese for MRI contrast agents.
  • Economy: Deep sea mining can create new markets and opportunities for economic growth and development, especially for small island developing states (SIDS) that have large exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the ocean.
  • Science: Deep sea mining can enhance scientific knowledge and understanding of the deep ocean environment and its biodiversity.

Challenges and risks that need to be addressed and mitigated

Legal disputes

  • Deep sea mining can trigger conflicts over jurisdiction, ownership, regulation, and enforcement among different countries and organizations, especially in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) that are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Environmental impacts

  • Deep-sea mining could cause irreversible damage to the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the deep ocean, which is largely unexplored and poorly understood.
  • It could disturb or destroy habitats, species, and genetic resources, as well as generate noise, light, and sediment plumes that could affect marine life.
  • It could also alter the biogeochemical cycles and climate regulation functions of the ocean, such as carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling.

Social impacts

  • Deep-sea mining could affect the livelihoods and cultures of coastal communities and indigenous peoples who depend on the ocean for food, income, and identity.
  • It could also create conflicts and disputes over resource ownership and access, as well as raise ethical and legal issues regarding the rights and responsibilities of different actors and stakeholders involved in or affected by deep-sea mining.

Technical and economic challenges

  • Deep-sea mining is a complex and costly endeavour that requires advanced technology and infrastructure, as well as adequate regulation and governance. Deep-sea mining faces technical uncertainties and challenges in terms of exploration, extraction, transportation, processing, and waste management.
  • It could also face economic uncertainties and challenges in terms of market demand, price volatility, profitability, and competitiveness.

Some of the possible ways forward are:

Precautionary approach

  • This is an approach that advocates for avoiding or minimizing harm to the environment and human health until there is sufficient scientific evidence and consensus on the impacts and implications of deep-sea mining.

Adaptive management

  • This is an approach that involves monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting the activities and regulations of deep sea mining based on new information and feedback from the environment and society.

Stakeholder engagement

  • This is an approach that involves consulting, informing, involving, collaborating, and empowering different stakeholders in the decision-making process of deep sea mining to ensure transparency, accountability, participation, and legitimacy.

Developing national legislation and policies

  • Many countries have enacted laws and policies to regulate deep-sea mining within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extend up to 200 nautical miles from their coastlines.
  • These laws and policies aim to ensure that deep-sea mining is conducted in an environmentally sound and socially responsible manner while maximizing the benefits for the country.

Indian and Deep Sea Mining

  • India is one of the countries that is actively pursuing deep-sea mining, both for scientific and commercial purposes.

Obtaining exploration rights from ISA

  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is an autonomous international organisation established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which regulates all activities related to deep-sea mining in international waters.
  • India was the first country to receive the status of a 'Pioneer Investor' in 1987 and was given an area of about 1.5 lakh sq km in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) for nodule exploration.
  • In 2002, India signed a contract with the ISA and after complete resource analysis of the seabed 50% was surrendered and the country retained an area of 75,000 sq km.
  • According to a release from the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the estimated polymetallic nodule resource potential in this area is 380 million tonnes (MT), containing 4.7 MT of nickel, 4.29 MT of copper, 0.55 MT of cobalt and 92.59 MT of manganese.

Developing deep-sea technologies

  • India’s mining site is at about a depth of 5,500 metres, where there is high pressure and extremely low temperature. To overcome these challenges, India has been developing various deep-sea technologies through its National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai. Some of these technologies include:
    • A remotely operable submersible (ROSUB 6000) that can collect samples from the seabed at a depth of 6,000 metres.
    • A crawler-based mining machine that can scoop out nodules from the seabed and pump them up to a mother ship through a flexible hose.
    • A manned submersible that can carry three people to a depth of 6,000 metres in the ocean with a suite of scientific sensors and tools.
  • India has tested some of these technologies in shallow waters and is planning to conduct sea trials in the CIOB soon.

Launching a Deep Ocean Mission

  • The Indian government approved a 'Deep Ocean Mission' to explore the ocean for resources and develop deep-sea technologies for sustainable use of ocean resources. The mission will be implemented in a phase-wise manner by various institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Earth Sciences. The mission will also focus on:
    • Exploring and identifying potential sites of multi-metal hydrothermal sulphides mineralisation along the Indian Ocean mid-oceanic ridges.
    • Developing ocean climate change advisory services to support coastal tourism, off-shore energy development, exploration and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity.
    • Bio-prospecting of deep-sea flora and fauna including microbes and studies on sustainable utilisation of deep-sea bio-resources.
  • The mission aims to balance between marine ecology and energy security of the country.


  • Deep-sea mining is still in its infancy, and there is a need for more research and dialogue to address the knowledge gaps and uncertainties that surround this activity. There is also a need for more stakeholder engagement and participation to ensure that deep-sea mining is based on the principles of transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, and precaution. Ultimately, there is a need for a holistic and integrated approach that balances the economic, environmental, and social aspects of deep-sea mining, and that considers the long-term implications and trade-offs of this activity for the ocean and humanity.

Must-Read Articles:

Deep Sea Mining: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/deep-sea-mining


Q. What are some of the potential benefits of deep-sea mining?

1. To provide a new source of income and development for resource-poor countries.

2. To support the transition to a low-carbon economy and society.

3. To enhance scientific knowledge and innovation in ocean exploration and technology.

Which of the following Statement is/are correct?

(A) 1 and 2 only

(B) 2 and 3 only

(C) 1 and 3 only

(D) 1, 2 and 3

Answer: D

Explanation: Deep Sea mining can also bring some potential benefits to different sectors and groups. It can provide a new source of income and development for resource-poor countries, especially small island developing states (SIDS) that have access to deep sea resources. It can also support the transition to a low-carbon economy and society by supplying minerals that are essential for renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries. Furthermore, it can enhance scientific knowledge and innovation in ocean exploration and technology by advancing our understanding of the deep ocean environment and developing new tools and methods for accessing it.