Deep-Sea Mining: Minerals for Clean-Energy Technology Will Come at an Environmental Cost
Sunday, July 23rd, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Mining the deep sea for critical clean-energy minerals.
Heads up: The Bagel is trying something new this weekend! Stay tuned for some news soon!
KNEAD TO KNOW
A new report by Goldman Sachs lowered the probability of a U.S. recession happening in the next 12 months, revising the odds down to 20% from its earlier projection of 25%. The report found recent positive economic activity signals lowering inflation won’t require a downturn, though growth is expected to decelerate somewhat in the coming quarters “mostly because of slower growth in disposable income … and a drag from reduced bank lending.”
A new analysis by Politico shows college towns are “decimating” the GOP’s chances in statewide races, as growing populations in America’s highly educated counties has led to massive gains for Democrats. The analysis included 171 cities and counties labeled as “college towns” by the American Communities Project, finding two in three have grown more Democratic since 2000. The shift is being driven by a variety of factors, most often resulting from a combination of left-leaning, highly educated newcomers joining college towns and rising levels of student engagement on campuses.
A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Harvard Medical Institutions found an estimated 795,000 Americans die or are permanently disabled by medical misdiagnosis each year. The researchers say their study is the “first rigorous national estimate of permanent disability and death from diagnostic error,” and updates previous estimates that varied from 40,000 to 4 million per year. The study found vascular events, infections, and cancers, together dubbed the “Big Three,” account for 75% of serious harms from misdiagnosis.
A new study by a researcher at the University of Ottawa claimed the universe is much older than previously thought, though other experts have challenged the claim. Without getting lost in the weeds, Rajendra Gupta used what’s known as the “tired light” hypothesis, which is generally regarded as discredited, to argue the true age of the universe is around 26.7 billion years, nearly twice as old as the widely accepted and far more scientifically backed age of 13.79 billion years.
Deep-Sea Mining: Minerals for Clean-Energy Technology Will Come at an Environmental Cost
A little-known organization at the heart of the debate around deep-seabed mining missed its deadline for establishing rules governing how to extract valuable resources from the deep. Renewable-energy technology relies on critical minerals, but experts say we need to learn more before we harvest them from the deep sea.
So, what does the research say about deep-seabed mining? And are the gains in critical minerals worth the environmental trade-offs?
Two years ago, the Republic of Nauru, a small island nation in the South Pacific, kicked started the beginnings of a new global industry: deep-seabed mining in international waters.
It did so by triggering an obscure clause in the U.N.’s law of the sea treaty giving the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the quasi-U.N. body tasked with regulating the seabed outside any country’s exclusive economic zone, a two-year deadline to establish rules governing how companies and countries can harvest valuable minerals from the seabed in international waters. Draft regulations have been in the works since 2011, but the deadline triggered by Nauru intensified the pressure to finalize the rules.
The two-year deadline came and went on July 9 without any new rules established, theoretically opening deep-sea mining to any of the 167 nations that signed the law of the sea treaty. The ISA is meeting through July 28 to work on the rules, and they’ll meet again in the fall, though they won’t actually finish. On Friday, member states reached an agreement for a new 2025 deadline.
Around 20 countries have called for a moratorium on deep-seabed mining, arguing operations shouldn’t begin until the environmental impacts are known. U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) joined the calls this past week, introducing a pair of bills that would halt deep-seabed mining in American waters and officially call for an international moratorium. To date, the ISA has issued more than 30 exploratory licenses, but none for actual mining.
Most of the mining is focused on one area: the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), a vast underwater abyssal plain spanning some 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) across the central Pacific Ocean (between Hawaii and Mexico) at a depth of around 4,000 to 5,500 meters (13,000 to 18,000 feet). Recent research suggests the CCZ is home to over 5,500 observed species, of which 5,100 have yet to be formally identified.
Here, millions of years of plate tectonics and underwater volcanoes have produced an incredible amount of potato-sized polymetallic nodules (pictured below), each containing valuable deposits of nickel, manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, and other minerals needed for most large batteries and various renewable energy technologies.
But how about the environmental impacts? Proponents of mining the seafloor argue it’s a better option than terrestrial mining, though other experts say we lack the technology to monitor the deep seabed and don’t know enough about deep-sea ecosystems to confidently move forward.
What the research says:
Despite exploration of deep-seabed mining gaining popularity in the 1970s (thanks to the help of a covert CIA operation), the technology to collect mineral-rich nodules from the seafloor is still in the experimental stage, and the impacts on deep-sea ecosystems remain unknown.
Early investigations into the practice aren’t promising.
A new study by researchers working with the Geological Survey of Japan is the first to examine the environmental impacts of mining cobalt-rich crusts in the deep sea. These hard, metallic layers form on the side of underwater mountains called seamounts, and are one of the three deep-sea resources the ISA has proposed for mining (along with the above-mentioned nodules and sulfide deposits around hydrothermal vents).
In 2020, as a test-run for future mining projects, the Japanese government funded a two-hour operation to excavate a roughly 120-meter long strip of cobalt-rich crust on a seamount in the Pacific Ocean. Returning a year after the excavation, researchers found the density of swimming animals, like fish and shrimp, dropped by 43% in areas directly affected by sediment pollution, and 56% in surrounding areas.
The researchers say there are several possible explanations for the decline in active marine life, but the team believes it could stem from the excavation contaminating animals’ food sources. The team didn’t observe a major decline in less mobile animals, like coral and sponges.
Another new study also suggests climate change could push tuna near the surface of the ocean to areas likely to be affected by mining, like the CCZ. The study found rising ocean temperature and pH may cause the region’s density of bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin tuna to increase, leading to “overlap” between mining and fish populations with the “potential for conflict and resultant environmental and economic repercussions.”
Why it matters:
So, is mining the deep sea worth the environmental trade-offs? Experts say it’s too early to tell, though it’s pretty clear the impact on deep-sea ecosystems will be immense.
At the same time, it’s not a straightforward debate.
Demand for nickel and cobalt to make electric vehicles could grow by up to 500% by 2050, according to the World Bank. And deep-seabed mining may help bolster global supply chains of valuable minerals by ensuring production isn’t concentrated in a small number of countries, as it is today.
A May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency also demonstrates the “looming mismatch” between the world’s climate ambitions and the availability of the critical minerals needed to meet those goals. For example, a typical electric vehicle requires six times the mineral inputs of traditional gas-powered cars, and an onshore wind plant needs nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.
One thing that is straightforward is the need for rules governing where, how, and under what conditions countries and companies can mine the deep seabed. As Claudio Bozzi, law professor at Deakin University in Australia, said in a new analysis on the issue, absent the ISA’s regulations, “seabed mining becomes legal by default – without rules to govern it at all.”
Iron Deficiency Affects More Female Adolescents than Previously Thought
A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan found 38.6% of females in the U.S. aged 12 to 21 years may be iron deficient, with higher rates observed among Black and Hispanic adolescents compared to non-Hispanic white adolescents. The findings represent a significant increase from previous estimates that found around 16% of adolescent females are iron deficient.
The researchers diagnosed iron deficiency if the level of ferritin, an iron-containing blood protein, was below 25 micrograms per liter (μg/L), a lower threshold than the typical 15 μg/L standard used by the World Health Organization. The team analyzed data from 3,490 female adolescents from 2003 to 2020 who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Lead author Angela Weyand and her colleagues used the cutoff because they believe the typical threshold doesn’t capture “how much iron our [bodies] think we need.” Weyland, a pediatric hematologist, said she’s treated patients with symptoms of iron deficiency who have ferritin levels above the standard 15 μg/L threshold.
Web3 Funding Has Plummeted
A new report by Crunchbase found venture capital funding raised by Web3 companies in the second quarter plunged 76% from the same period last year, falling from $7.5 billion in Q2 2022 to $1.8 billion last quarter. Deal flow also fell 51%.
On a half-year scale, the findings were actually slightly worse. In the first half of this year, Web3 startups raised $3.6 billion, representing a massive 78% drop from the $15.8 billion raised in H1 2022.
Crunchbase previously found venture capital funding in the second quarter was down across all sectors, falling 18% from the first quarter of the year to $64.5 billion, and down 49% compared to the second quarter of 2022, when investors spent $127.2 billion.
AIDS Can Be Ended by 2030 with Political Will and Financial Investment
A new report by UNAIDS found it’s possible to end AIDS by 2030 if countries demonstrate the political will to adequately invest in prevention and treatment, including efforts to address the current inequalities stifling progress and enable communities’ and civil organizations’ roles in the response.
The U.N. agency found HIV responses succeed when they’re “anchored in strong political leadership,” evidenced by the success in countries like Botswana, Eswatini, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, each of which has already achieved their “95-95-95” target. That means 95% of people living with HIV know their status, 95% who know they are living with HIV are on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, and 95% of people on treatment are virally suppressed.
The report acknowledges ending AIDS won’t be easy, as the disease claimed a life every minute in 2022 and around 9.2 million people living with HIV globally still miss out on treatment, including around 660,000 children.
$1 billion - The estimated annual additional health care costs in the U.S. due to heat events each summer, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress. The report found more frequent and prolonged periods of heat will lead to a rise in heat-related illness, resulting in increased visits to physicians, visits to emergency departments, and hospital admissions.
25.2 million acres - The area burned by wildfires in Canada so far this year, topping the country’s previous record of over 18 million acres burned in 1989, according to new data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. The area burned so far in 2023 is nearly equal to the size of Kentucky.
25% - The decrease in posting activity on Stack Overflow, the largest Q&A platform for software development and programming, within six months of the release of ChatGPT, according to a new preprint posted on arXiv. The findings may hint at the future of products like Google Search, which could see decreased usage as large language models become the go-to for basic search queries.
50 grams - The weight of a suspected meteorite that struck a woman in Schirmeck, France earlier this month, potentially making her the second-ever known person to be hit by a falling space rock. The woman was drinking coffee at around 4am local time when she heard a “bang” from her roof and felt something strike her ribs. The features of the pebble-sized rock are consistent with that of meteorites, though it’s yet to be officially determined to come from space.
Long Video. Take a stroll and learn about downtown Los Angeles’s unique architecture. (12 min)
Short Video. Learn about the “empty land theory,” one of history’s most dangerous myths. (5 min)
Fun Video. Explore the incredible engineering behind Las Vegas’s new sphere. (10 min)
Good Read. Get the real history behind Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. (3,835 words; 19 min)
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Written by Ryan Wittler