Within an area of over 6 million square km, around 25 times the area of the UK, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the central Pacific Ocean, at abyssal depths of almost 5,000 metres, lies a vast mineral resource of polymetallic nodules. The nodules that carpet the seafloor of this area are highly enriched in metals of significant importance for industry, including the development of new sustainable technologies.
The Seabed Mining and Resilience To EXperimental Impact (SMARTEX) project will research the baseline environment in regions of the CCZ selected for mineral exploration and evaluate the long-term impacts of mining. This project will provide critical scientific understanding and evidence to reduce the risks of future industrial development on the marine ecosystem within this region.
This blog will provide regular updates on our first SMARTEX field project. Our expedition, JC241, between 5 February – 26 March 2023 on the UK Royal Research Ship James Cook will take us from Costa Rica to the central Pacific with four key aims:
- Understand the remaining impact of a realistic mining test on the seabed environment and its fauna after 44 years. We plan to revisit the OMCO (Ocean Minerals Company) test mining area where an experimental mining system was tested in 1979 creating tracks on the seafloor. Using a wide range of techniques we hope to map, photograph and sample this area to see how the tracks and the adjacent areas subjected to plumes have recovered in 44 years.
- Assess natural temporal change in faunal communities between 1989 and 2023. We plan to revisit and resample the 16 boxcore stations first sampled in 1989 at the PRA (Preservation Reference Area) site to understand how the undisturbed fauna change after 34 years.
- Provide the first assessment of species and communities present at APEI-13. We plan to use the UK ROV ISIS to map, image and sample the seafloor communities of this area newly designated by the International Seabed Authority as an area of particular environmental interest (APEI). Our data will help to understand the role of this expected high-nodule density area as a marine protected area.
- Characterise the environment and ecology of the UK contract area in the CCZ in advance of potential future mining tests. The UK1 area, held under an exploration contract by the UK-sponsored company UK Seabed Resources, has already received considerable study over the last decade. We plan to collect additional information on the water, seabed and fauna to advance our understanding of long-term and broad-scale environmental change at this site. This will inform any decisions about how best to manage the impacts of potential mining at this site.
Planned Expedition Route
Our evaluations of the ecosystem’s resistance and resilience to mining disturbance will be supported by the capabilities of the NOC-operated vessels and marine robotic systems.
Abyssal plains are one of the least explored and understood regions of our planet. Measuring the baseline conditions and the changes resulting from mining will help build our understanding of this region and inform important societal decisions being made about the sustainable use of our planet’s resources.
The expedition will be supported by 52 people including ship crew, technicians and scientists. The science team includes researchers from the National Oceanography Centre, Natural History Museum, British Geological Survey, Scottish Association of Marine Science, Heriot-Watt University, University of Liverpool and University of Southampton. It will also be supported onshore by Plymouth University and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
We hope you’ll be able to follow our expedition online on this blog. We aim to use this platform to share our discoveries in the remote Pacific abyss as they happen.