PROD, a newly developed remotely operable drill recently tested off Perth, Australia, is expected to help find a great harvest of minerals on the seafloor, and to aid research. It may also disrupt ecosystems that humans know little or nothing about--and perhaps lead to the extinctions of as yet unknown lifeforms.
The robotic drill, controlled from the surface, can prospect deeply, even two kilometers below the water's surface. The device, most of it created by Benthic Geotech of Sydney, is likely to be deployed in a volatile area near Papua New Guinea, where continuous volcanic underwater activity creates heated water, which carries a polymetalic wealth of silver, gold, copper and zinc. Also present there are unusual forms of life, some as yet unknown to science and others previously thought to be extinct.
The non-living things are what are apt to start a mining boom. Dr. Ray Binns, the CSIRO Exploration and Mining chief research scientist, told a Sydney Mining Club luncheon not long ago about worldwide commercial interest. Binns is one of the few people to actually have been present at "way down under" smoking vents and metal-bearing "chimneys" when riding in the Shinkai-6500 deep-water submersible in 1994.
Odd fish, prawns, snails and crabs, as well as the newly discovered tubeworms, are among the creatures off the New Guinea vents. One of these vents is called the Roman Ruins, another is termed Snowcap, while a black-smoke-emitting one is named in the plural as the Satanic Mills.
During February 1999, in Madang, Papua New Guinea (PNG), an international workshop on seabed mining, where both the possible economic gains and the potential environmental losses were debated, attracted Pacific Islands nations' participations. Since just one important "strike" could change the economy of any of their economies, a gold-rush mentality was on the increase.
Organizations like Greenpeace became involved, since the fates of the world's oceans were concerned. They were and are worrying about tampering with ecosystems before their true functions in the world are understood. Benedict Southward, Greenpeace's Australian campaign manager, said, "They will carve up the deep oceans in the same way they have carved up the lands."
The financial possibilities of deep-water marine mines may push aside other concerns--in PNG and elsewhere.
Most of Australia's large sea floor area is a mystery, and decisions are being made to protect some of these areas so that exploitation will not ruin them all.
A portion of the Tasmanian Seamounts, for example, has been made a deep-sea marine reserve. The other 80% of them are open to exploitation, and for possible PROD-ing.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald online (www.smh.com.au), 6/4/99