In my book, Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation, I chronicle how, since the Agricultural Transition 10,000 years ago, a critical driving force behind global economic development has been the discovery and exploitation of “new frontiers” of natural resources. Natural resource scarcity both drives this process – as costs rise with scarcity we develop the technologies to exploit new resource frontiers – and it is a consequence – once frontiers are settled, developed and exploited, scarcity ensues again.
Today, we are embarking on rapid exploitation of a vast new frontier, the Deep Sea of the world’s oceans.
The Deep Sea begins at around 200 meters (m) depth, which is the limit at which sufficient sunlight penetrates the sea for photosynthesis to occur, and extends to nearly 11,000 m. The area comprising the Deep Sea is vast, covering around 90% of the ocean floor. This region consists of many diverse and interconnecting ecosystems, including abyssal plains, continental slopes, deep-sea canyons, manganese nodule fields, seamounts, cold water coral reefs and gardens, cold seeps and hydrothermal vents. The structure, functioning and dynamics of Deep Sea ecosystems are complex and shaped by many factors, including the depth of the water column above them. In addition, it is still poorly understood how these Deep Sea ecosystems interact with the rest of the ocean on which humankind depends for food, climate and ocean regulation, recreation and other ecosystem goods and services.
The Deep Sea is also rich in terms of natural resources, principally sources of seafood, fossil fuels and minerals. As a result, the world is already embarking on the industrialization of the Deep Sea. Trawling in this region has been increasing for decades, pollution is already reaching the ocean depths and climate change is acidifying the seas at global scale. Oil and gas exploration and extraction have started on the shallower fringes of the Deep Sea, and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has pre-approved leases to mine the ocean floor. As Deep Sea ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to these activities, the global community needs to develop strategies for ecosystem conservation, restoration and overall management of the diverse habitats that constitute the deep-sea environment.
Such a policy is urgently needed. Along with the Artic and Antarctica, the Deep Sea is one of the world’s last major frontiers. The key characteristics of such regions are an abundance of natural resources relative to people, a location far from population centers, and a lack or underdevelopment of governance. Because of the extent and resource abundance of large frontiers, humans ignore any impacts by exploitative activities and believe ecosystem restoration is not worth the costs. Unless the international community begins acting now to put in place the policies governing the use, management, protection and restoration of critical Deep Sea ecosystems, then history will repeat itself. The Deep Sea frontier will be over-exploited, with vast areas and ecosystems irrevocably degraded.
Unfortunately, the consequences of the loss of this “last frontier” on Earth could be global and catastrophic for humanity.
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