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Images: The Promise and Perils of Seafloor Mining

Seafloor chimneys are formed by minerals precipitating out of solution when hot hydrothermal fluids mix with cold seawater. The same process creates large, concentrated deposits of precious metals on the seafloor. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tivey and WHOI Deep Submergence Lab, Cruise Manus 2006 with ROV Jason, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Mineral particles precipitating when hot venting fluids meet cold seawater make the fluids look like smoke emanating from chimneys. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tivey and WHOI Deep Submergence Lab, Cruise Manus 2006 with ROV Jason, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Hydrothermal vent fluids contain chemicals that sustain rich communities of deep-sea life. Scientists are studying ways to mitigate damage from mining to these oases of life. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tivey and WHOI Deep Submergence Lab, Cruise Manus 2006 with ROV Jason, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Nautilus Minerals' first targeted mining site, Solwara 1, is in the eastern Bismarck Sea. The company also has exploration licenses (red areas) and applications (yellow areas) to search for potential minable sites in more than 525,000 square kilometers of seafloor off the shores of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Exploration licenses give the company the right to look for potential mineral deposits within designated areas. If it finds any, it must still receive a license to mine the sites, which are considerably smaller than the exploration areas. Solwara 1, for example, is about 10,000 times smaller than the size of the exploration license area in which it was found. (Map courtesy of Nautilus Minerals)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution held a Morss Colloquium on "Precious Metals from the Deep Sea" in April 2009. It included public presentations by stakeholders in the seafloor mining debate and a panel discussion with (from left) Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans; Sabine Christiansen of the World Wildlife Fund; Rod Eggert, director, economics and business, Colorado School of Mines; WHOI marine geochemist Chris German; Nii Odunton, secretary-general of the International Seabead Authority; Samantha Smith, environmental manager of Nautilus Minerals; and WHOI geophysicist Maurice Tivey. (Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)