This is the last frontier: the ocean floor, 4,000 metres beneath the waters of the central Pacific, where mining companies are now exploring for the rich deposits of ores needed to keep industry humming and smartphones switched on.
The prospect of a race to the bottom of the ocean – a 21st-century high seas version of the Klondike gold rush – has alarmed scientists. The oceans, which make up 45% of the world's surface, are already degraded by overfishing, industrial waste, plastic debris and climate change, which is altering their chemistry. Now comes a new extractive industry – and scientists say governments are not prepared.
"It's like a land grab," said Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic. "It's a handful of individuals who are giving away or letting disproportionate special interests have access to large parts of the planet that just happen to be under water."
The vast expanses of the central Pacific seabed being opened up for mining are still largely an unknown, she said. "What are we sacrificing by looking at the deep sea with dollar signs on the few tangible materials that we know are there? We haven't begun to truly explore the ocean before we have started aiming to exploit it."
But the warnings may arrive too late. The price of metals is rising. The ore content of the nodules of copper, manganese, cobalt and rare earths strewn across the ocean floor promise to be 10 times greater than the richest seams on land, making the cost of their retrieval from the extreme depths more attractive to companies.
Mining the ocean floor of the central Pacific on a commercial scale is five years away, but the beginnings of an underwater gold rush are under way The number of companies seeking to mine beneath international waters has tripled in the last three or four years. "We have already got a gold rush, in a way," said Michael Lodge, deputy secretary general of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates the use of the sea floor in international waters. "The amount of activity has expanded exponentially."
The Jamaica-based agency has granted 26 permits to date to explore an area the size of Mexico beneath the central Pacific that had been set aside for seabed mining – all but eight within the last three or four years.
Britain is leading the way in a project led by Lockheed Martin, but Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all have projects in play. This year alone, companies from Brazil, Germany and the Cook Islands have obtained permits to explore tracts of up to 75,000 sq km on the ocean floor for copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese, and the rare earth metals that help power smartphones, tablets and other devices.
Other areas of the Pacific – outside international waters – are also opening up for mining. Papua New Guinea has granted permission to a Canadian firm, Nautilus Minerals, to explore a site 30km off its coast for copper, zinc and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
Lodge expects the pace to continue, with rising demand for metals for emerging economies, and for technologies such as hybrid cars and smart phones. Extracting the metals will not require drilling. The ore deposits are in nodules strewn across the rolling plains of sediment that carpet the ocean floor. Oceanographers say they resemble knobbly black potatoes, ranging in size from a couple of centimetres to 30cm. Mining companies say it may be possible to scoop them up with giant tongs and then siphon them up to vessels waiting on the surface.
The problem is much remains unknown – not just about what exists on the ocean floor but how ocean systems operate to keep the planet habitable. The ocean floor was once thought to be a marine desert, but oceanographers say the sediment is rich in marine life, with thousands of species of invertebrates at a single site.