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School of Geography

New paper evaluates the impact of deep-sea mining on microbial ecosystem services.

A new paper co-authored by James Bradley, published in Limnology & Oceanography, evaluates the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on microbial ecosystems and ecosystem services in the deep ocean.

WHOI’s ALVIN works near a long-term fluid sampler where octopods clustered on the sediment free surface of Dorado Outcrop, 3000 mbsl, in 2014. Photo credit: Trevor Fournier and Chris Trebaol

Interest in underwater extraction of mineral resources from the seabed through mining has increased in recent years, driven by consumer demands for metals such as a zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements, which are used in batteries for smartphones and electric cars.

Microbial ecosystems have been overlooked in environmental impact assessments that have examined the consequences of deep-sea mining activities. However, microbes across the seafloor are responsible for a number of important ecosystem services, including fueling the food web. Environments that are promising for mining are often important for the unusual animal and microbe communities they harbor. These environments also foster rich genetic diversity, making them promising candidates in the search for new drugs and potentially suitable for biotechnology applications.

The study emphasizes the importance of evaluating the consequences of mining activities in environmental assessments, and recommend that baseline analyses of microbial diversity, biomass, and rates of chemical processes be included in environmental impact assessment planning. It is also vital to determine what roles the microbes are playing and assess how they would be impacted by mining.

There is no precedent for mining activities in the deep sea, and therefore the consequences of local-scale destruction and permanent loss of seafloor habitat and endemic microbial life are difficult to predict.

It is vital to understand the potential impacts of mining activities to figure out if they should occur and how to manage them if they do. This important conversation must engage policymakers, industry, and the scientific community. Once these ecosystems are damaged, they may never fully recover.


Orcutt, B.N., Bradley, J.A., Brazelton, W.J., Estes, E.R., Goordial, J.M., Huber, J.A., Jones, R.M., Mahmoudi, N., Marlow, J.J., Murdock, S. and Pachiadaki, M. (2020) Impacts of deep-sea mining on microbial ecosystem services. Limnology & Oceanography. doi: 10.1002/lno.11403



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