A deep, dark section of the Pacific Ocean — the abyssal plain known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone — contains more than 5,500 marine life species, about 90 percent of which are new to science, according to a new study.
Mining companies have staked out licenses to mine precious minerals from the area, something that can begin once the International Seabed Authority lays out final mining regulations, which could happen in a few weeks. Meanwhile, scientists should start assessing which of these species are most vulnerable to extinction, the new paper says.
New Marine Life Discovered
Data from past expeditions found that researchers had observed or collected 5,142 unnamed species belonging to the area along with 436 already known to science. To reach down some 6,000 meters (about 19,700 feet) deep, the researchers lowered remote-controlled vehicles or dropped special boxes to scoop up “box core” samples.
Muriel Rabone, a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says of one such expedition, in a press release: “It was amazing. In every single box core sample, we would see new species.”
She spotted sponges that looked like plain old bath sponges and others that resembled delicate vases. “One of my favorites [are] the glass sponges,” she adds. “They have these little spines, and under the microscope, they look like tiny chandeliers or little sculptures.”
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How Large Is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone?
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is massive, about twice the size of India, and much of it lies unexplored despite numerous expeditions. The 2.3 million square mile band stretches from Hawaii to Mexico and contains vast plains of potato-shaped metallic nodules, where much of the sea life lives. Mining companies want to extract these nodules for their nickel, manganese and cobalt, three of the five critical minerals needed to power the electric car revolution.
One of the companies, Canada’s The Metals Company, has called the CCZ the largest untapped nickel reserve on the planet and promotes seafloor mining as “the lightest planetary touch” compared to other forms of extraction. Its seafloor license alone has enough minerals to build 280 million electric vehicles, it says — enough to replace the entire U.S. passenger fleet.
Law of the Sea: No Serious Harm
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, miners such as The Metals Company cannot cause “serious harm” and must take steps to protect the environment. What “serious harm” means, however, remains to be clarified, although the paper says it may come to mean the extinction of one or more species.
“There are so many wonderful species in the CCZ,” says Rabone, “and with the possibility of mining looming, it’s doubly important that we know more about these really understudied habitats.”
According to the study, half of the fauna identified in the CCZ are “macrofauna,” a small-but-substantial group that includes some species of polychaete worms.
Larger megafauna (think: eels) make up 28 percent, while the other 22 percent is made up of meiofauna, minute invertebrates, like the nematode and the tiny moss animal. About 14 percent of all these species are “nodule” dwellers, meaning they base their lives on the metallic potatoes.
Nodules form on the sea floor over millions of years, during which metals in the seawater bond to a nucleus (a clamshell, etc.) and grow outward in many metallic layers.
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