In detail drawing: mining in shallow seas

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Deep-sea mining means long — and expensive — voyages to the central Pacific, with technology still being tested. However, the shallow waters on the continental shelf are more attractive to potential miners. Glittering in the shallow waters are gems like diamonds, along with phosphorites, metallic minerals like gold and tin, and polymetallic nodules—small rocks containing cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper.

A recent study mapped mineral resources off the coasts of every continent except Antarctica, where mining is prohibited. Some shallow water mining operations have been in place for decades. In Namibian waters, companies have been mining for diamonds since 2002. Dredging tin off the coast of Indonesia is the largest offshore mineral mining operation in the world. Unlike deep-sea miners looking for polymetallic nodules at depths exceeding 3,500 metres, a Swedish company plans to test mines in the sea separating Sweden and Finland – at depths of less than 150 metres. Most of the shallow water’s mineral resources remain untapped, but for how long?

Shallow water mineral resources map

The map shows an overview of three types of mineral resources in shallow waters: marine placers (such as metallic minerals or gemstones), phosphorites, and polymetallic nodules. These resources have the potential to be extracted based on how close they are to the coast and how deep they are found. Map by Kaikkonen et al.

The study argues that there is virtually no discussion of the effects of shallow water mining. Mining can affect ecosystems in the seafloor and water column with recovery taking years to decades. While shallow water ecosystems recover faster than deep sea communities, mining impacts are still significant in coastal areas. Mining can remove seafloor habitats, potentially causing local extinctions, and sediment plumes can smother marine organisms and affect water quality. Mining operations in shallow seas risk impacting local populations, either through infrastructure on land or through negative impacts on the marine ecosystems on which they depend.

Coastal environments are already burdened by the cumulative impact of climate change and various industries. Coastal mining is another industrial layer with significant knowledge gaps. Shallow water mining is also what the study authors call a “regulatory gray area.” While the work is still in progress, international law – the law of mining – applies to deep-sea mining. However, mining in shallow seas depends on states for regulation and not all countries have strong environmental laws. The study concludes that shallow sea mining is not a low-risk panacea for meeting society’s demand for minerals.

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Author CV

Elham Shobahat is a writer and researcher interested in conservation, cities, forests, and the climate crisis. Her work has been published on the CBC News website, SabinesMongabay and others.

writer Elham Shabat

Cite this article:

Cite this article: Ilham Shabat, “In Graphic Detail: Exploration in Shallow Seas,” same magazine25 November 2022, accessed 25 November 2022,

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