The deep sea is the most mysterious realm on Earth, and remains virtually untouched by human activity.
But this vast wilderness may soon experience a rude awakening. Over one million square kilometers of ocean floor, between 800 and 6,000 meters deep, have been earmarked for exploration by mining companies. While seabed mining has occurred at shallower locations within national borders, it has never been conducted in deep international waters before.
Unlike the offshore oil industry, which has been drilling in underwater environments for decades (with sometimes devastating consequences), the machinery required to mine gold, zinc, nickel, copper, manganese, and other valuable minerals from the deep sea is only now reaching maturation. It may be less than a year before this type of industrial extraction kicks off, and vessels are already prospecting to get a sense of their potential yield.
Now, you can track these ships online with Deep Sea Mining Watch , a web tool launched on Wednesday at the Dreamforce software conference in San Francisco. It’s the first public platform that allows users to directly follow the movements and distribution of these vessels, according to Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and a marine biology professor at UC Santa Barbara.
“Our philosophy is just serving up information, trying to make it more accessible, and letting people know exactly where and what is happening with this industry in the oceans,” McCauley told me over the phone.
The tool’s dataset is generated by automatic identification system (AIS) trackers that ships are required to carry to prevent collisions with other ocean traffic. McCauley and his team previously used this method for a project called Global Fishing Watch , which uses AIS trackers to monitor fishing vessels around the world, in part to ensure that they don’t exploit protected areas. “Everyone behaves more responsibly when they have a tracker attached to them,” he noted.
For Deep Sea Mining Watch, the team developed new parameters to sift for signs of ocean prospectors in a dozen regions across Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
“You can have a fishing vessel that can be pretty small, but you can’t have a small mining vessel,” he explained. “We started searching for big vessels that are doing particular kinds of mining and prospecting-associated behavior. That’s how we pull them out of the billions of data points about all vessels that are floating around on the ocean.”
The map illustrates the growth of this emerging industry. For instance, this graphic from the new tool displays claimed regions stretching 4,500 kilometers across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, a distance roughly equivalent to the diameter of the continental United States.
Even ocean experts like McCauley were surprised at how actively the seabed is being probed for minerals, now that companies have developed the technologies necessary to extract them.