It is natural when thinking about starting a new business to think of something tech-based, cool, trendy with people staring into laptops surrounded by empty pizza boxes and pulling all-nighters. This is how after all the richest companies on the planet have created their founder mythology, and indeed untold riches have been made – and are continued to be invested – in the dream of the killer app, platform or gadget that will change the world. But little thought is given in how important the oceans are in keeping the devices that power these apps, platforms and gadgets connected, as well as linking the financial system that funds and pays for it. And further, with the shift to a low or no carbon future, how the oceans could prove to be far more important in supplying the raw materials to make and link those devices. And the threat to all of us that that carries.
Despite the satellites that keep our mobiles connected when we are on the move, by far the majority of data moving around the world is via cables, and most of the cables that connect the world with each other run along the seabed. A report by the EU from April last year puts the issue starkly:
The global subsea data cable network is a vital critical infrastructure. As much as 99 % of the world’s digital communications transit through the network, and the global economy and digital services are fully dependent on it. Since cables lay out at sea, across national borders and are often hidden underground, they have frequently been forgotten and received limited attention from policymakers. Sparked by Russian naval activity since 2014 and the geopolitical shockwaves sent by the 2022 Ukraine war, the vulnerability of maritime infrastructures is now receiving growing public and policy attention.
And there’s not that many of them: around 400 in fact. About twenty connect western Europe to the US, carrying 40% of global internet traffic. Everything from Netflix, to Amazon, to US$ 10 trillion worth of financial transfers daily use them, and as they are a shared resource little thought of, any damage – intentional or otherwise – could cause significant problems to how the world works.
Theoretically, a snip of a cable in one place should result in a seamless rerouting of data elsewhere in the system. But there is little understanding how this would work in practice, as no-one really knows which cables are used to carry what and by whom. And if there is damage to these cables, it is obviously not as simple as sending a van out to check a connection box under the pavement. The average repair to an undersea cable takes two weeks, and the equipment used to locate and fix the problem is scarce.
The increase in submarine activity to map energy and cable infrastructure is by no means limited to Russia, and last autumn’s sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea shows the risks involved. And the fact that many transoceanic cables traverse international waters means that the responsibility for their maintenance and repair, let alone protection, fall to the companies that own and make money out of them, either communication groups or tech companies such as Google and Amazon.
Even if the undersea infrastructure remains untouched and unharmed, people are turning their attention to the oceans to source the minerals required to make the chips that drive the devices we use, as well as the batteries needed to power everything from mobiles to electric vehicles and beyond. People more usually connected with crypto mining, such as Elon Musk, have been sounding the alarm. Think of lithium, used for batteries (including by Tesla of course): Musk warned of an urgent need for more western start-ups to counter reliance on Chinese supplies of the mineral. Although lithium can be mined in many parts of the world, the processing capability takes place mainly in China. “Instead of making a picture-sharing app, please refine lithium,” he urged would-be entrepreneurs. “Mining and refining, heavy industry, come on!”
One way being explored now to process lithium is by unlocking it from brine. Although trying to get lithium from seawater was tried (and dropped) in the 1970s because the concentrations were too tiny to make sense, other sources of brines, from salt lakes and other areas, some geothermally affected, are being explored. This technology is at an early stage of renaissance, but the composition of seawater, and the minerals deposited by it, vary around the world depending on the depths and the environment. And other equally essential minerals, like cobalt, manganese, copper, zinc, nickel and traces of rare earth elements are there to be found on the sea floor.
But the depth of the water to get at these minerals is daunting. Cobalt crusts form on sediment-free seamounts at depths of 800-2,500 metres, taking a million years to form a crust of 1-5mm. Deeper still are the seafloor massive sulphides forming along volcanically active ridges, as molten rock rises and leaches minerals from rocks it passes through. When it vents and cools the minerals are deposited in mounds or chimneys, from 1,000 – 4,000 metres below sea level. Deeper still are polymetallic nodules, which grow at depths of 4,000 – 6,500 metres down.
Not deterred by the depth several mining companies are exploring how to get at these riches key to the green energy transition. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) – a UN backed regulator – is about to consider the world’s first commercial deep-sea mining application later this year. This type of mining is not new however: underwater mining for diamonds off the seas of southern Africa has been taking place for decades. It will come as no surprise that China is sending vessels to explore the ocean floor for minerals too.
There are number of things that make me troubled about all of these developments, and all of them focus on the oceans. Covering such large areas of the earth’s surface can lead us to consider them as vast, unlimited resources, but they are so essential to maintaining the earth’s environmental stability, from their temperature to their level, their chemical composition and the way they move cold and warm water around that any cursory concern about the climate of our world – above sea level – should surely equally be concerned about the oceans. It is ironic that in moving to control our surface environment, we are considering to mess around with the other one beneath the waves. Exploiting this environment must be done with caution, as it far less known than our own. Sure, the oceans are vast, but do we really understand how they function? And that is before we consider the harm that could happen to the ecosystem, locally and generally.
Secondly, the regulatory bodies – the IMO, UNCLOS, ISA and other UN instruments – have contradictory and in some cases, conflicting aims even before the ever-changing template of geopolitical manoeuvres is laid on top of them. The implications are infinite and mind-boggling.
Thirdly, the world is bewilderingly inter-connected, whether we like it or not. You are reading this – if you have got this far – thanks to data sent down any number of cables, overland and under the sea, on a route that you cannot trace and is unpoliced except by the companies that operate and maintain them.
Finally, there is money to be made here. Instead of trying to shoe-horn pre-existing technology into apps that have little effect on how the business of shipping is done, maybe investments in gaining a better understanding, research and investment into the oceans themselves, not just to exploit their riches, but to protect and nurture them too would be more worthwhile.
The oceans seem vast and impenetrable to most of us, but we are already so connected by them, whether above, on or below the surface, that those of us who make our living from them – or because of them – should at least be aware and concerned about what happens to them. Leaving it to others could turn out to be a huge missed opportunity, financially, politically and ecologically.