Scientists discovered 5,000 sea creatures that no one knew existed.  It’s a warning.

Scientists discovered 5,000 sea creatures that no one knew existed. It’s a warning.

There are bright, sticky creatures that look like partially peeled bananas. Glassy, ​​translucent sponges that cling to the seabed like upside-down chandeliers. Fantastic octopuses, aptly named after Casper the Friendly Ghost.

And that’s exactly what has been discovered so far in the ocean’s largest hot spot for future deep-sea mining.

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To manufacture electric vehicles, batteries and other key components of a low-carbon economy, we need a lot of metal. Countries and companies are increasingly trying to extract copper, cobalt and other critical minerals from the seabed.

A new analysis of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a vast mineral-rich region in the Pacific Ocean, estimates there are some 5,000 marine creatures completely new to science. The research, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, is the latest sign that underwater extraction could be at the expense of a diverse array of life we’re just beginning to understand.

“This study really shows how anomalous this part of our planet and this part of our ocean is in terms of how much new life there is down there,” said Douglas McCauley, an ocean sciences professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. who was not involved in the study.

It also underscores a conundrum of so-called clean energy: Extracting the raw material needed to enable the transition from fossil fuels has its own environmental and human costs.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say the toll of getting those metals is lowest under the sea, away from humans and even richer terrestrial ecosystems. “It just makes fundamental sense that we look for where we can extract these metals with the lightest planetary touch,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of the Metals Company, one of the leading companies seeking to mine the seabed for metals.

But the discovery of so much marine life reveals how little we know about Earth’s oceans — and how high the cost of renewable energy can be for life beneath the waves.

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Life at the bottom of the abyss

At the bottom of the ocean, miles below the surface, lies a potato. A bunch of potatoes. Or rather, a bunch of stones that look like potatoes.

After a shark’s tooth or clam has descended the depths to the seabed, over millions of years metallic elements dissolved in the seawater accumulate on those fragments of bone and stone.

The results are submarine fields of potato-sized mineral deposits called polymetallic nodules. For a society that needs these minerals, the nodules are an unburied treasure, lying there on the sea floor, ready to be collected.

One of the largest collections of nodules is at the bottom of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region twice the size of India sandwiched between Mexico and Hawaii. The only light this deep comes from occasional flashes from bioluminescent animals.

Despite decades of interest in mining this abyss, little is known about the basic biodiversity of the region. So a team led by London’s Natural History Museum analyzed more than 100,000 records from years of research cruises that sampled marine animals.

For some expeditions, scientists have thrown boxes to the bottom and lifted them back to the surface, much like an arcade claw game. For others, researchers used remote-controlled underwater vehicles to snap photos or scoop up some “poor, unsuspecting starfish or sea cucumbers,” said Muriel Rabone, the Natural History Museum researcher who led the paper.

The team found between 6,000 and 8,000 animals, of which about 5,000 were completely new to science. One of the world’s few remaining intact wildernesses, the extreme depths and darkness of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, have fostered the evolution of some animals found nowhere else on Earth.

Among them is the gummy squirrel, a neon-yellow sea cucumber that can use its long tail to surf underwater waves and roam the seafloor like “gnus traveling the Serengeti,” said Adrian G. Glover, another co-author of the Natural History Museum.

Another spotted animal is a beady-eyed cephalopod called the Casper octopus, which was discovered in Hawaii in 2016 and named for its ghostly white appearance, perhaps due to a lack of pigment in its food.

Or at least, scientists think they’ve seen the octopus in the CCZ. “These are only visual observations, so we can’t be sure it’s the same species,” said Daniel Jones of the National Oceanography Center in England, another co-author on the paper.

Many animals find shelter in the nodules themselves. Tiny soap worms burrow into it, while glass sponges, which use silicon to build their creepy, crystalline skeletons, grow out of it. Little is known about how these species interact and form ecosystems.

“It’s a surprisingly high diversity environment,” Glover said.

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The need for nodules

That biodiversity has led more than 700 marine science and policy experts to call for a pause in mining approvals “until sufficient and robust scientific information is obtained.” Too little is known, they say, about how mining can harm fisheries, release carbon stored in the seafloor or send plumes of sediment into the water. Old test sites for underwater mines show little sign of ecological recovery.

The bottom of the ocean was once thought to be “a bit of desert,” says Julian Jackson, a senior manager of ocean management at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the paper and wants a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

“But now we understand that there are actually huge amounts of biodiversity in the abyssal plains,” he said.

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that there are fewer ethical compromises than land-based mining. Deep in the ocean, there are no indigenous communities to relocate, no child labor to exploit, and no rainforests to cut down. At present, rainforest-rich Indonesia is the most important nickel-producing country.

“You can’t think of a better place to put such a large, abundant resource,” said Barron, the director of the Vancouver-based Metals Company. His company has also provided funding to Natural History Museum researchers.

The company says it designed its robotic vehicle to pick up nodules with as little sediment as possible. But Barron admits it’s a “bad day” for any organism aspirated. “This is not about zero impact,” he said, but about minimizing the global impact of mining. “I don’t know of anything that doesn’t have any impact.”

For now, there is no commercial extraction in the CCZ, where no nation is in charge. Environmentalists and mining managers are waiting for a UN-chartered body called the International Seabed Authority to issue regulations on underwater mining. But the small Pacific nation of Nauru, the partner of the Metals Company, invoked a clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to speed up the process.

If all goes according to plan, the Metals Company expects to begin mining in late 2024 or early 2025. Opponents worry there isn’t enough time to make sure it can be done safely. Jackson said it is “completely undecided about how we are going to oversee and enforce these rules.”

“That’s a very lively debate right now,” he added.

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This article is part of Animalia, a column that explores the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways we value, endanger, and depend on them.

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