Protecting Earth's Final Frontier -- The Deep Sea

05/31/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2013
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

It may be understandable that a terrestrial primate such as ourselves would pay little attention to a world so foreign, inaccessible, and inhospitable as the deep sea, but with growing threats to the region, it's time we do so.

Historically, most human interaction with the ocean world has been limited to shallow coastal areas, for fisheries, recreation, oil drilling, etc. Farther offshore, most human experience has been limited to ship travel across the two-dimensional sea surface, ignoring the dark realm deep beneath the waves.

The largest and least understood component of Earth's biosphere, the deep sea biome (below 1,000 meters depth), covers 60 percent of Earth's surface. This mysterious region has no sunlight, low physical energy, low temperatures, extreme pressure, high biodiversity, and high sensitivity to human disturbance. Fewer people have been to the deep ocean than to outer space.

The deep sea bed is intersected by huge submarine canyons, the longest mountain range on Earth (the mid-ocean ridge), over 45,000 submerged seamounts with a combined surface area the size of Africa, rare chemosynthetic vent ecosystems with 6-foot tall tube worms, sea floor brine pools (hypersaline "lakes within oceans"), and countless mysteries yet unknown to science. The deep sea pelagic (water column) zone is the scene of the largest animal migration on Earth -- the daily vertical migration of zooplankton, bioluminescent "lantern fish," and other organisms which nightly ascend as much as 1 kilometer to feed, descending again at daybreak. Some scientists think there could be 10 million species in the deep sea, few of which are known to science. Deep-sea ecologist Fred Grassle said that "the deep-sea may, in fact, rival tropical rainforests in terms of the numbers of species present." Some species in this Alice in Wonderland-like world have unique genetic and molecular adaptations that could have future commercial application.

Although this inaccessible realm has long been out-of-sight, out-of-mind for humans, with the rapid development of deep-sea technology, industry now considers the region to be the last, yet most formidable, resource frontier on Earth.

At present, large oil and gas reservoirs are being developed in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico (where the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred), Brazil, East Asia, West Africa, and the Arctic. A dozen state/private mining consortia, interested in mining polymetallic (manganese, iron, copper, nickel, etc.) nodules, have been issued seabed mineral exploration leases across an expansive deep sea fracture-zone between Baja and Hawaii in the Pacific. Companies are expressing interest in mining cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts on seamounts, and some are poised to begin the first commercial mining (for gold and copper) at deep-sea hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea, with other South Pacific nations soon to follow. And there are interests in deep-sea waste disposal (dredge spoil, mine tailings, radioactive materials, carbon dioxide, etc.), commercial fishing, and methane hydrate extraction.

As governments continue to favor commercial development over environmental sustainability, the deep sea biome is being degraded even before we know much about it. -- Richard Steiner

The dangerous combination of increased industrial pressure, high sensitivity to human disturbance, poor scientific understanding, rudimentary management, and virtually no protected areas heralds long-term, potentially irreversible, environmental harm here. Impacts from deep sea development include destruction of habitat (such as hydrothermal vents), suspended sediment plumes, oil spills (such as Deepwater Horizon), noise and light pollution, damage to fish and invertebrate populations, and species extinction. These impacts are additive to effects of climate change, deep ocean current alteration, acidification, and contaminants from the surface.

To date, there are virtually no protections in place for this vast, remote, and poorly understood biome. As governments continue to favor commercial development over environmental sustainability, the deep sea biome is being degraded even before we know much about it.

The first thing we need in the deep sea is a "time-out" for all commercial development, including minerals and hydrocarbons, within national Exclusive Economic Zones (200-mile limits), and on the international sea bed beyond national jurisdictions. We need more science, a better understanding of risks and impacts, and more deliberate application of that science in implementing a sustainable management regime for this final ecological frontier.

This must include a comprehensive network of permanently protected areas. While 13 percent of the land surface of Earth is in some protected status, less than 1 percent of the ocean is protected, and most of that is within 12 miles of shore. Some propose that at least 10 percent of the global oceans be designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), while others call for 20 to 50 percent to be protected.

We also need an independent Deep Sea Environmental Commission to advise coastal governments and the International Seabed Authority regarding environmental impacts of future development.

And, by simply increasing the efficiency with which the global economy uses energy and minerals, and transitioning to sustainable alternatives, we can eliminate the need to exploit these deep-sea resources altogether.

How humanity proceeds into this extraordinary ocean frontier is an ethical and moral issue. To unleash the same destructive, uncontrolled corporate determinism into the deep sea that has destroyed much of the land surface of our planet would be an historic mistake.

As we head down into the deep ocean, we need to get it right so that this wondrous dark ocean world is preserved for future generations.

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