If you think the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon explosion are going to be harmful on a variety of fronts, wait until they start opening up the ocean floor for copper, nickel, gold, silver, cobalt and more a mile below the surface.
Which, if the Chinese have their way, is about to happen, in international waters in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Papua, New Guinea.
So-called “deep sea mining” was first proposed as far back as the mid-1960s, in a book called Mineral Resources of the Seas by J.L. Mero. He described the potential as “limitless.” Over the next 20 years the U.S., Germany, France and others spent hundreds of millions of dollars investigating the possibilities. The Convention on the Law of the Sea created an International Seabed Authority to oversee potential mines; the Chinese have recently applied for a permit.
The possibility of mining the ocean floor 4,000 to 9,000 feet below the surface has been seriously rumbled about in recent years, especially in countries with booming populations thus resource needs. The Chinese are willing to pay for the risky and expensive operation and a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, is willing to undertake the labor.
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)
Is it really possible that the planet’s blue space is at risk of being completely consumed and abused?
Given the gusher in the Gulf (86 days and counting) it is easy to imagine man having nothing but negative impact on the world’s ocean. But with 72 percent of the planet covered by salt water is it really possible that our one big ocean could truly be at risk of what some have dubbed “ocean sprawl?”
I’d like to say no, that the ocean is simply too big, that while the its fringes may suffer from man’s flagrant contempt, won’t the bulk of it be protected simply by its its depths, its enormity, its far-awayness?
Then I remind myself just how rapacious we have proven as a species.
Man’s heavy footprint on the ocean came to me the other day flying low in a helicopter south of Port Fouchon, Louisiana, headquarters of the state’s $70 billion a year oil industry. Below, everywhere I looked were scattered oilrigs, shrimpers, tankers, small fishing boats, floating docks and barges, stretching for many miles away from the coastline.
Let’s not be fooled by current events though; it is hardly just the oil industry that is threatening Planet Ocean.
Oil and natural gas are obvious villains, in part due to the BP spill, but also the infrastructure that accompanies it, giant physical rigs and infrastructure carrying resources from seabed to shore.
But we use – and abuse — the ocean in hundreds of ways, from fishing to generating electricity, from tourism to military protection. Shipping lanes collide with the migration routes of endangered whales. Fish farming booms while climate change alters ocean chemistry. Power lines, reefs, lobster traps and sunken ships compete for seafloor space. New energy sources including wave generated power and offshore wind turbines each eat up space. Every year coastal development destroys 20,000 acres of estuaries and near-coast fish habitat (Louisiana’s coastline alone loses 25 square miles a year, a football field every half hour). Urban waste runs-off into the ocean, so do millions of gallons of pesticides from farm fields. Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter. And then there are those damn oil spills.
It is the cumulative impact that is most worrying. Is the ocean’s future to become some kind of watery version of Houston – paved over, horribly polluted, with no zoning, no controls.
Around the globe three billion people live within an hour of the ocean. In the U.S. the ocean that surrounds creates more than two million jobs and more than $128 billion in gross domestic product each year. One impediment to taking care of and monitoring man’s impact is because there is no one agency or policy controlling it. In the U.S. more than 140 laws are administered by six different federal departments and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another in their efforts to “look after” our ocean and coastlines.
Within months of taking office President Obama set up a first-of-its-kind task force to put together a federal plan for the ocean and coastlines. He stocked it with some of the best and the brightest drawn from the marine biology world. Since issuing an interim report ninety days after it was first set up the task force has been largely on hold as the same team has devoted itself to the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.
For all those good intentions, which I hope arrive at some kind of national Ocean Policy, ever since man started using the ocean – to explore, to open trade routes, for resources – he has approached the ocean with a single mindset: Out of sight, out of mind.
It is in part the ocean’s very vastness and seeming toughness that has allowed us to continue to abuse it.
That has to change, for the ocean’s sake, for our sake.
It was one year ago that Somali pirates seized the tanker Maersk Alabama and then quickly paid the ultimate price – shot in the head by snipers – for their efforts. During what was a very busy year for piracy on the Indian Ocean that was the first time an American-operated ship had been seized. You might have thought its culmination, the killing of three of the four pirate/gunman holding 53-year-old Captain Richard Phillips would have given the pirates pause. (Phillips book about the incident – A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea – is just out.)
While 2009 was a busy year for the Somali pirates — 217 ships attacked between Yemen and Somalia, 47 seized for ransom, 867 crew members held hostage — 2010 is looking like a record-breaker.
I was in the Indian Ocean one year ago, during the height of the grabbings, researching a film, and was struck by just how blatant the pirates had become, straying a thousand miles off the coast of Somalia into the Seychelles Islands. I was also struck by the acceptance of piracy by most of the locals, starting with the very first exhibit you see inside the door of the state museum on the Seychelles island of Mahe, which traces the discovery of the region by pirates back six centuries. It’s a very poor corner of the world and a bit of Robin Hood-on-the-seas is apparently acceptable.
This January, a Greek oil tanker and its 28-member crew were freed for $5.5 million, the largest ransom yet paid to free a hijacked ship. In February, Ukrainians paid $3.2 million to free an arms freighter. During the last week of March eight ships were hijacked in three days. Last week pirates grabbed a 300,000-ton Korean super-tanker laden with $160 million worth of crude oil headed from Iraq to the U.S., which is now anchored off the coast of Somalia, its 24-crew hostage. Its owner is negotiating for its release right now. (The pirates are not infallible, of course: In mid-March a pair of skiffs mistakenly attacked a Dutch warship, confusing it with a cargo ship; they were chased down and caught, their weapons confiscated, and let go.) Private security guards aboard a merchant ship recently shot dead one of several attackers trying to seize the vessel. The killing was thought to have been the first involving private contractors – a now booming business for underemployed mercenaries whose Iraq contracts have expired.
“The pressures and the incentives for the pirates are so great and the risks are still so low,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Unless you get some solution on land, or cooperation from local authorities, this will just remain a problem that you can tamp down only occasionally.”
While I feel sorry for all the crew members still being held, the people I would most not want to be? The British couple in their 60s who were kidnapped last October between the Seychelles and Tanzania aboard their 38 foot sailboat, the Lynn RivaI. Held in separate camps onshore for the past six months, the pirates have lowered their ransom demand for the couple from about $9 million to $2 million; officials fear if someone doesn’t come up with the cash, militant Islamist groups may “buy” them to use as pawns.
One piece of good news? Somali pirates are reported to have donated a “large sum” to humanitarian aid in Haiti, post-earthquake.
It was twenty years ago today — March 3, 1990 — that my friend Will Steger and five international polar men completed what will forever be the most audacious crossing of Antarctica. Their Trans-Antarctica Expedition will last in Antarctica history for a variety of reasons: Its length and duration (3,741 miles in 221 days, requiring that it start in winter and end in winter). Because it was the last expedition by dog (dogs were outlawed the following year by an amendment to the Antarctic treaty). And its expense (upwards of $12 million).
The book Will and I wrote about the expedition – CROSSING ANTARCTICA – has just been republished. Readying the book for reprinting I have reread it several times during the past few months and was happily reminded of just how audacious an undertaking it was, beginning with the incredible complexities of coordinating a six-man team from six different countries on a continent ruled by international treaty.
LUNCH, Trans-Antarctica Expedition 1989-90, Photo by Will Steger
But what I was re-impressed by most was that this was a REAL ADVENTURE story. There is nothing faux when you’re dealing with a fierce winter storm that lasts sixty days, or the threat of running out of dog food far, far from help, or the mental struggle of having to get up every morning for seven months, endure -40 degree days of pushing through deep snow … without giving in to the inevitable human desire to simply give up.
In one of its anniversary issues Outside chose a few of the “best opening lines ever” from an adventure book. The first paragraph of CROSSING ANTARCTICA was included:
“July 25, 1989 – The stench of wet dogs, kerosene, cigarette smoke, molding cheese and sweat-stained clothing saturated the air of the Soviet ‘flying coffin’ as we closed in on Antarctica. Fifty-odd passengers readied themselves for what we fully expected to be a crash landing. My partner in this expedition-to-be, a diminutive Frenchman named Jean-Louis Etienne, was standing beside my seat. He leaned over and insisted the smell that permeated the tense cabin and increased the tension was one he recognized; it was, he said, the smell of adventure.”
The expedition would end on the far side of the continent, near the Russian base of Mirnyy. No team has ever, or most likely will ever, cross a similar distance on the seventh continent. On the final day, March 3, the team was exhausted but exhilarated. Midway through the expedition a variety of options had been considered, including reducing the team to four, or perhaps quitting altogether. Its successful conclusion – broadcast live by ABC News, a huge deal and expense at the time – was one of those brilliant memories we will all carry for a lifetime.
On that last day Will wrote in his journal, “… we traveled the final sixteen miles under perfect, clear skies and temperatures hovering just below zero.
“We could see the deep blue of the Indian Ocean the entire day. Sunlight danced and glared off the icebergs that had lined up to greet us, and we crested the hill overlooking the Soviet base just before seven o’clock. As we headed down one last icy slope – men shouting encouragement to the dogs, the dogs howling out of pleasure at the scene that spread before them – an aura of peace swept over me as the responsibilities of the past three years and these last 3,741 miles lifted from my shoulders.
“As I skied the last half mile I could not erase from my mind a picture of another time, another cold place. It was April 1986, the middle of the frozen Arctic Ocean, when Jean-Louis and I first met. He stepped to the top of a ridge of jumbled sea ice, seemingly out of nowhere, and we embraced, like brothers, though we’d never even been introduced. Everything that we’d done these past years evolved from that fated moment, from that embrace. We had turned our dreams – about adventure and cooperation, about preservation and the environment – into realities. We had the confidence to take risks, and the scene splayed in front of us now was our reward, our affirmation.
“The Soviets had marked our entryway with red flags and made a Finish line. A gathering of one hundred, speaking a dozen different languages, swarmed around us as we came down the flag bedecked chute. As I called my dogs to a stop one last time and stepped out of my skis, Jean-Louis walked toward me. I lifted Sam onto my shoulder and Jean-Louis – completing the circle begun those years ago in the middle of the Arctic Ocean – wrapped us both in a bear hug.”
DAY 4 – This is our third day out of Dar es Salaam. We’ve had repeated pirate drills, gathering in the Crew Mess — our ‘Citadel’ – and reporting our crew number to the Hotel Manager while the security team checks to see that all of the proper doors have been locked. Just a single passage is left open down into the ship, for those left on the bridge if we would be attacked. If the ship seems lost anyone still on the bridge is to send out distress calls and then retreat immediately to the Citadel, locking the last doors behind them. The Captain of each ship is a highly valuable commodity and in case of trouble our goal is to get him below deck, to safety. There are to be no more drills.
Until today we’ve not seen another ship or boat. No one. We are close to the Somali coast now, very close. Midday we pass two freighters, seeming to be in one place, adrift, facing the sea. This is very strange for these waters, very ominous, like a scene from “Heart of Darkness.”
We soon learn that one of the ships is a Filipino freighter that had been released by pirates four days before with very little fuel; when we pass them they are just drifting, with only enough power for lights and radio. They had been sending out a constant “mayday.” Apparently a German military ship had delivered them some food a few days before, but left and now they are nearly dead in the water. The other ship is U.S. Navy delivering food; who knows how long it will stay around.
Those on board it knew that pirates are still in the area and the crew was afraid they would be re-taken. There had apparently been some kind of double-cross by the owners of the boat involving a $2.1 million dollar ransom and it’s rumored the pirates are unhappy with the situation and might come back aboard and the ship, which remains helpless against them. The ship had been held since November with the crew on very short rations, their families frantic. No one wants to go back to Somalia.
Most of the crew on the drifting ship is Filipino and it is interesting listening into the conversations among our mostly-Filipino crew. They are upset, worried. Many of the hostages still being held in Somalia are Filipinos.
“Where is the company, the owner of that ship?” one of our deckhands asked me. “There is suppose to be a tanker with fuel coming, where is it? They know the ship is sitting there, an easy target without fuel.” He is angry but I could tell he was speaking from fear and sadness. He was thinking of his family back home, how they would feel if he were taken hostage.
The Filipinos go to sea to make a better life at home for their families. They are the backbone of the international shipping industry and yet almost invisible. The bonds among them are very strong. In our business the elite destination is Antarctica and in a well-traveled group you do not ask, “Have you been to Antarctica?” The more proper question is, “How many times have you been to Antarctica?” As a group it is the Filipinos who have been to Antarctica more than anyone. But throughout the industry, and on the Somali shores, they remain invisible, without political power.
Someone keeps leaving the gym unlocked, which is at the top of the ship. We are only allowed to use it during the daytime and it is supposed to be kept locked at all times as it gives access to a main stairway that passes through the entire ship. If it happens again there will not be any more use of the gym! Even though I am not using it, I wonder how someone can be so thoughtless, so clueless, to leave it unlocked, endangering everyone on board. In a movie or a novel people like that always seem contrived, but I guess they do exist. – Dennis Cornejo
DAY 3 — It almost seems like a normal repositioning day, which the ship does several times a year, moving from port to port without passengers. But this is our third day moving up the coast of Somalia so nothing is normal. Still, there’s lots of work being done all around the ship and even a BBQ lunch on the sun deck under armed guard!
The day is warm, the sea flat and most importantly, empty of other boats, which helps the mood. One change that’s hard to get used to is that it’s hard to find anyone on board. Usually if I was looking for someone I would just call on our handheld radio system, but we’re not allowed to use them during this passage. Too easy for someone off the ship to listen in, we’re told, alerting them that we’re in the area, making it easy for someone to get a position fix on the transmitting radio. On the Bridge they are monitoring the marine bands, but just listening, never answering. At one of the drills we are still having daily the Chief Officer said, “We will be monitoring channels 16 and 77. If we hear you on the radio, we will tell you to shut up!” The result is that it is strangely silent in the dive locker where I work. Usually I would have the handheld radio on so that I can keep up with what’s going on around the ship; now I do not, so I play my music a little louder to feel less alone.
Somali pirates hoping to win the lottery
We have chosen to run close to the Somali coastline so are making good time since we didn’t have to go very far out to sea. The Coalition forces recommend following a route that would have taken us hundreds of miles east of Somalia. But the day before we left Dar es Salaam the Captain showed me a map detailing recent pirate attacks, complete with graphics showing all the attacks and captures during the past year. He pointed out that there had been no attacks near the coast. Which was true, the map was clean and white near the coastline. Every day ships are being attacked and taken on the “recommended” route, which is continuously being pushed further offshore. And still the pirates are out there, waiting and desperate. Mother ships take small skiffs hundreds of mile out to sea and then cut them loose, telling the pirates in them, “The only way you get home is on what you capture.”
The Hotel Manager shows me a You Tube clip showing a pirate attack on a freighter. Someone has a camera on the high bridge at the back of the ship, which picks up a skiff — a hard-bottom inflatable — near the bow. In a minute it is up against the ship and secured by grappling hooks thrown over the rail. In less than three minutes a pirate is on board running towards the bridge, quickly joined by another who has climbed on from the other side of the bow, from another skiff. He’s also running. Just a few minutes more and the ship is taken, the film clip ends. What happened to that ship? I don’t know and to be honest I don’t care. But now, throughout the day, that scene replays in my head over and over. I also see a picture of the pirate captured by the Navy Seals and think, “So this is what a pirate looks like! He has really white teeth, just like everyone else in the movies, magazines and TV!”
I’m told that the pirates often attack from both port and starboard in order confuse the Captain, to limit effective evasive actions. And the pirate skiffs are out there, two hundred miles or more offshore, just waiting for some way to go home, to win the lottery. But we’re not going out there! The Captain feels we have a better chance by being bold.
We watch another movie after dinner (“Marley and Me”) and people gather afterwards to talk or play card games. There’s lots of joking and in a surreal way things almost seem … normal. – Dennis Cornejo