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As if the oceans are not struggling enough with climate change, pollution and overfishing, the United Nation’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 17 prospecting licenses for state and private companies eager to dig up the ocean floor. The ISA has published a report evaluating the impact that mining the sea bed to extract about mineral rich “nodules” amid “an unprecedented surge of interest,” according to The BBC. And they are frank to note that there will be “inevitable environmental consequences.”

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On the sea bed of a five million square-kilometer section of the Eastern Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone alone, there exists 27 billion tonnes of nodules, the BBC reports. This contains roughly seven billion tonnes of manganese, 340 million tonnes of nickel, 290 million tonnes of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt. Whilst it is unclear whether it’s possible to extract all of these resources from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, demand coupled with new technology has made the idea more feasible than it was before. And the UN could issue licenses for extraction as soon as 2016.

Naturally, environmentalists are concerned. Dr Jon Copley, a biologist from the University of Southampton, told the BBC earlier this year that we are responsible for acting as stewards of the ocean.

“We don’t have a good track record of achieving balance anywhere else—think of the buffalo and the rainforest—so the question is, can we get it right?”

Other scientists warn that mining an area would scare off existing species, who would move off to another spot in the ocean, and then the mined area would die. Multiply this by thousands of kilometers and we’ve got another potential environmental catastrophe on our hands.

Via The BBC