By Kristi Kates | Jan. 18, 2020
We are now surrounded by the evidence.
The most significant and consistent temperature increases in the last 2,000 years have occurred in just the last century. The 10 hottest years globally have all occurred since 2005, and the five hottest were the last five.
That has led to more drought and more wildfires. More than 2.5 million acres burned in Alaska last year, California was on fire for most of the summer with deadly results, the latest in a decades-long trend of more fires burning more acreage, costing more money.
And not just here.
We might never have seen wildfires quite like those now burning in Australia. More than 30,000 square miles — an area bigger than New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined — have already burned, and their peak fire season just started. Estimates of the number of animals killed by fire range from 500 million to a billion.
Where fire isn't an issue, water is. The world is having more storm-related flooding more frequently, another trend. And it gets worse with rising sea levels.
Recent research published in the journal Nature Communications projects that by 2050, land where 150 million people now live will be under water at every high tide and, ultimately, all the time. Most of south Florida, the New York/Newark region, the Carolina and Georgia coasts, and parts of New England would be included.
This isn't a mystery; we've been told this was coming for four decades. Our use of fossil fuels personally and industrially has created greenhouse gases warming the globe, raising sea levels, and generating more weather extremes globally.
We also know the solution is to move away from fossil fuels. That means renewable energy. And more batteries, a lot more. Batteries to power vehicles and batteries that can store power from sources like wind and solar. So we're going to have to find a lot more lead, nickel, cadmium, lithium, sodium and chloride. The question is: How do we find, extract, and use these minerals safely? Some have decided the answer lies on the ocean floor.
We've known for more than a century that some parts of the ocean floor are full of what are called polymettalic nodules. Ranging in size from golf balls to softballs, the nodules are made almost entirely of copper, manganese, nickel, and cobalt. Pretty convenient for those seeking the minerals but not so convenient to extract, especially since the nodules are mostly in very deep international waters.
Thanks to recent reporting by Wil S. Hylton in The Atlantic, we now know how some countries are going to exploit the ocean floor.
Some of this — dredging or vacuuming — has already been done for years in several countries’ territorial waters. The DeBeers cartel has been siphoning the ocean floor off the coast of Namibia seeking diamonds. Both Japan and South Korea have mining areas around thermal vents looking for gold and silver.
Now territorial restraints will be lifted, thanks to something called the United Nations International Seabed Authority, which will start handing out permits to 30 interested countries. The applicants, which do not include the U.S., have plans.
Multiple large, experimental vessels with what are basically giant powerful vacuum cleaners will work methodical grid patterns, sucking up the top five inches of the seabed and anything happening to reside there. The ships will then separate out the minerals and spew the leftover sediment back into the ocean — 2 million pounds per ship, every day.
Nobody knows exactly what impact that will have but, ocean currents being what they are, it's a sure bet it won't gently settle back onto the ocean floor from whence it came. And it probably won't be so good for the critters trying to exist through the haze of sediment, or the ecosystem wherever it finally settles. Even worse, these operations could redistribute toxins, like mercury, that had been resting on the ocean floor.
This all sounds like bad unintended environmental consequences waiting to happen in service to provide the materials needed to help the environment.
This is not to suggest we can avoid it. Renewable energy is cleaner at every stage of development and use than fossil fuels. We need the material to create that energy and store it.
It does, however, suggest that we've not yet discovered an energy silver bullet; everything leaves a carbon footprint at some stage, some of the materials used are dangerously toxic, and we've not yet figured out how to effectively recycle or dispose of some of what we're going to have to use.
Renewable energy helps us mitigate the existential threat of climate change, but it doesn't mean the environmental work is done. We should start thinking about cleaning up renewable energy, too. We're heading toward cleaner energy but still searching for something truly clean.