Today in Biogeosciences, he and his colleagues have published a review of more than 200 studies on deep sea resources, giving us our first comprehensive look at what we gain—and steal—from the bottom of the ocean.
“There’s this idea in the public that we don’t know anything about the deep sea,” Thurber said. “That it’s overwhelmingly large and dark.” And it certainly is a bit mysterious: In the deep, plants no longer get their energy from sunlight, creating a host of creatures that seem strange compared to our usual marine fare. But by volume, 98.5 percent of the areas of the planet that can support animals are in the deep sea.
Despite all the unknown crevices, Thurber said, “we do know enough to start to understand how our actions in the deep sea can impact the environment.” These actions, he said, include mining for minerals and precious metals, as well as aggressive fishing.
And what do we have to lose? “For starters, a quarter to a half of the carbon dioxide we’ve put into the atmosphere has been absorbed by the deep sea,” Thurber said. And large reservoirs of methane are contained by the biological activity in the ecosystem as well. “It’s the deep sea that makes our planet habitable,” he said.
The mining of nickel from the deep sea poses an immediate concern, Thurber said. Countries with limited access to the metal on land are seeking it out by way of deep sea mining. “These metals build up over thousands of years,” he said, “but they can be mined incredibly rapidly.” He and his colleagues worry that these resources will be depleted before we understand how severe the impact on our environment will be. At that point, the ecosystem could take centuries to recover.
“We just want people to know that the deep sea impacts their day to day life,” Thurber said. “It lets them live as they do. And in the future, it will provide resources for their cellphones and cars. It’s an incredible resource that’s mostly untapped, which is very exciting.” But, he said, it’s important that those taking advantage of the deep sea’s treasures proceed with care.