Biodiversity in deep-sea mining exploration areas

Bryozoan attached to a olymetallic nodule

Polymetallic nodules are home to many deep-sea species, such as this bryozoan. Credit: Adrian Glover, Thomas Dahlgren, Helena Wiklund.

Principal Investigator

Dr Adrian Glover

Project summary

  • Focus: Studying biodiversity in regions of interest for deep-sea mining
  • Funding: Natural Environment Research Council, UK Seabed Resources Ltd, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The Metals Company Inc, Pew Trusts

We are studying biodiversity in the deep abyssal Pacific Ocean, which is being explored for potential deep-sea minerals.

In the central Pacific Ocean lies a vast region called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), where the deep seafloor is covered in polymetallic nodules, potato-sized lumps of rock. These contain a huge quantity of metals, many of which have been described as critical to future green technology industries such as electric vehicles (Hein et al 2020; Herrington et al 2021). 

The CCZ is vast, almost as big as Australia. Thanks to Museum research, we know the area has high levels of biodiversity and is home to many small invertebrate animals living on the seafloor and in the water column above. 

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), no mining is yet allowed in the CCZ. A body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) ensures that if mining does take place, it is legal, economic and environmentally sustainable. 

A boat on the ocean with the sky and clouds above

Aboard the research vessel, image by Adrian Glover

Our research makes available this vital biodiversity data to everyone who has a stake in decisions on the sustainability of deep-sea mining, from the regulator to environmental pressure groups.

Our research is funded by the UK government, NGOs and industry who are mandated to commission biodiversity research. It is also categorically impartial: no funder has any influence over the data produced. All details of sources of funding and affiliations are publicly available on our website. 

This research is important to help understand the ocean biodiversity and how it could be impacted by mining. In 2018, the Museum's' Prof Adrian Glover led a review of the current state of biodiversity data in these regions, highlighting the need for better information before important societal decisions on seabed mining are taken. 

Providing essential scientific information in an open way enables regulatory bodies and all stakeholders to be fully informed. The Museum's research is contributing to an international, open and transparent process for making critical decisions on our planet's resources and environmental future.  

The sea floor with two lasers pointing at the ground

Seafloor with polymetallic nodules, image by Craig R Smith and Diva J Amon

Projects in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone

There are 17 different contractors working in the CCZ, comprised of government research institutes and private companies sponsored by a nation state. None of these entities is allowed to start mining - they can only undertake exploration and scientific research.

Since 2013, the Museum has been working as a contractor to produce baseline biodiversity data in the CCZ for the company UK Seabed Resources Ltd (UKSRL), which operates the UK's exploration contract area. Museum scientists, led by Dr Adrian Glover, have taken part in three, 45-day-long UKSRL research expeditions to the CCZ and published the data in 18 openly accessible papers in the scientific literature. <anchor link to papers>.

In 2018, we started a project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a charitable conservation body, to establish the suitability of regions in the CCZ as potential marine protected areas. For this project, we took part in an expedition to the western CCZ and used a remotely operated vehicle to gather data. This project produced the first comprehensive study of the larger megafauna of the western region of the CCZ, with two open-access papers currently in preparation.

A hand reaches into a tub of mud and rock that they are sucking up with a tube

Sampling the top layers of a box core sample containing polymetallic nodules, image by Adrian Glover

In 2020, we began work as a contractor on a new environmental science project led by the private company Deep Green, now The Metals Company, under regulatory authority by the ISA and the sponsoring state, Nauru. As part of this work, Museum scientists took part in two 45-day scientific expeditions to the CCZ. As with our work with UKSR, all data and scientific results will be made open-access in peer-reviewed literature. 

In 2021, the Museum commenced a new project funded by the UK Government through the Natural Environment Research Council called SMARTEX - Seabed Mining and Resilience to Experimental Impact. This £6M, four-year project will involve two science expeditions to the CCZ with the Royal Research Ship, James Cook, in 2022 and 2023. All the data we collect, as well as our studies, will be made available to guide future policy decisions by the ISA and the nation states involved.

Also in 2021, Museum scientists started a project funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts to survey the existing data available on the biodiversity of the CCZ and how data availability might be improved in the future.

Underpinning our work in this field is a commitment to using integrative DNA-based taxonomic methods (Glover et al 2016; Glover et al 2018). There are no field guides to the region and the majority of our work involves describing the many new species we encounter, making genetic libraries of data available for others to compare and collecting specimens for the Museum's collections. This helps all the stakeholders improve the quality of the data they produce and provides policy makers with better information on which to make future decisions.

An invertebrate peeps out of a deep sea sponge

A newly described species of polychaete, Neanthes goodayi Drennan et al 2021 is seen here poking out of a polymetallic nodule at 4000m depth. Image: A Glover, H Wiklun, T Dahlgren.

A woman in a blue shirt looks at a sreen showing a worrm in the deep sea - there are lots of equipment on the desk

Dr Helena Wiklund sampling polychaetes for DNA and imaging live specimens aboard a research ship, image by Adrian Glover

Publications

Amon, D. J., Ziegler, A. F., Dahlgren, T. G., Glover, A. G., Goineau, A., Gooday, A. J.,... Smith, C. R. (2016). Insights into the abundance and diversity of abyssal megafauna in a polymetallic-nodule region in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Scientific Reports, 6:30492. doi:10.1038/srep30492

Dahlgren, T. G., Wiklund, H., Rabone, M., Amon, D. J., Ikebe, C., Watling, L., . . . Glover, A. G. (2016). Abyssal fauna of the UK-1 polymetallic nodule exploration area, Clarion-Clipperton Zone, central Pacific Ocean: Cnidaria. Biodivers Data J, 4: e9277 (30 June 2016). doi:10.3897/BDJ.4.e9277

Glover, A. G., Dahlgren, T. G., Wiklund, H., Mohrbeck, I., & Smith, C. R. (2016a). An End-to-End DNA Taxonomy Methodology for Benthic Biodiversity Survey in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, Central Pacific Abyss. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 4(1), 2. doi:10.3390/jmse4010002

Glover, A. G., Wiklund, H., Rabone, M., Amon, D. J., Smith, C. R., O'Hara, T., . . . Dahlgren, T. G. (2016b). Abyssal fauna of the UK-1 polymetallic nodule exploration claim, Clarion-Clipperton Zone, central Pacific Ocean: Echinodermata. Biodivers Data J, e7251. doi:10.3897/BDJ.4.e7251

Glover, A. G., Paterson, G. L. J., Wiklund, H., Taboada, S., Waeschenbach, A., Cobley, A., . . . Amon, D. J. (2016c). The London Workshop on the Biogeography and Connectivity of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Research Ideas and Outcomes, 2: e10528. doi:10.3897/rio.2.e10528

Lim, S.-C., Wiklund, H., Glover, A. G., Dahlgren, T. G., & Tan, K.-S. (2017). A new genus and species of abyssal sponge commonly encrusting polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, East Pacific Ocean. Systematics and Biodiversity, 15(6), 507-519. doi:10.1080/14772000.2017.1358218

Taboada, S., Kenny, N. J., Riesgo, A., Wiklund, H., Paterson, G. L. J., Dahlgren, T. G., & Glover, A. G. (2017). Mitochondrial genome and polymorphic microsatellite markers from the abyssal sponge Plenaster craigi Lim & Wiklund, 2017: tools for understanding the impact of deep-sea mining. Marine Biodiversity, 1-10. doi:10.1007/s12526-017-0786-0

Wiklund, H., Taylor, J. D., Dahlgren, T. G., Todt, C., Ikebe, C., Rabone, M., & Glover, A. G. (2017). Abyssal fauna of the UK-1 polymetallic nodule exploration area, Clarion-Clipperton Zone, central Pacific Ocean: Mollusca. Zookeys (707), 1. doi:10.3897/zookeys.707.13042

Taboada, S., Riesgo, A., Wiklund, H., Paterson, G.L., Koutsouveli, V., Santodomingo, N., Dale, A.C., Smith, C.R., Jones, D.O., Dahlgren, T.G. and Glover, A.G. (2018). Implications of population connectivity studies for the design of marine protected areas in the deep sea: An example of a demosponge from the Clarion‐Clipperton ZoneMolecular ecology. doi:10.1111/mec.14888

Glover, A.G., Wiklund, H., Chen, C. and Dahlgren, T.G. (2018). Point of View: Managing a sustainable deep-sea ‘blue economy’requires knowledge of what actually lives there. eLife7, p.e41319. doi:10.7554/eLife.41319

Gooday, A.J., Sykes, D., Góral, T., Zubkov, M.V. and Glover, A.G., (2018). Micro-CT 3D imaging reveals the internal structure of three abyssal xenophyophore species (Protista, Foraminifera) from the eastern equatorial Pacific OceanScientific reports8(1), p.12103. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-30186-2

Wiklund, H., Neal, L., Glover, A.G., Drennan, R., Rabone, M., Dahlgren, T.G. (2019). Abyssal fauna of polymetallic nodule exploration areas, eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone, central Pacific Ocean: Annelida: Capitellidae, Opheliidae, Scalibregmatidae and Travisiidae. ZooKeys 883: 1-82. doi:10.3897/zookeys.883.36193

Rabone, M., Harden-Davies, H, Collins, J.E., Zajderman, S, Appeltans, W., Droege, G., Brandt, A., Pardo-Lopez, L., Dahlgren, T.G., Glover A.G., Horton, T. (2019) Access to Marine Genetic Resources (MGR): Raising Awareness of Best-Practice Through a New Agreement for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction. Frontiers in Marine Science. 6:520. doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00520

Guggolz T, Meißner K, Schwentner M, Dahlgren TG, Wiklund H, Bonifacio P, Brandt A (2020) High diversity and pan-oceanic distribution of deep-sea polychaetes: Prionospio and Aurospio (Annelida: Spionidae) in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Organism, Diversity and Evolution 109:138–19 doi:10.1007/s13127-020-00430-7

Hestetun, J. T., Bye-Ingebrigtsen, E., Nilsson, R. H., Glover, A. G., Johansen, P. O., & Dahlgren, T. G. (2020). Significant taxon sampling gaps in DNA databases limit the operational use of marine macrofauna metabarcoding. Marine Biodiversity, 50(5), 1-9. doi:10.1007/s12526-020-01093-5

McQuaid KA, Attrill MJ, Clark MR, Cobley A, Glover AG, Smith CR, Howell KL. Using Habitat Classification to Assess Representativity of a Protected Area Network in a Large, Data-Poor Area Targeted for Deep-Sea Mining. Frontiers in Marine Science. 2020 Dec 9;7:1066.

Bribiesca-Contreras, G., Dahlgren, T. G., Drazen, J. C., Drennan, R., Horton, T., Jones, D. O., ... & Glover, A. G. (2021). Biogeography and connectivity across habitat types and geographical scales in Pacific abyssal scavenging amphipods. Frontiers in Marine Science8, 1028.

Washburn TW, Menot L, Bonifácio P, Pape E, Błażewicz M, Bribiesca-Contreras G, Dahlgren TG, Fukushima T, Glover AG, Ju SJ, Kaiser S. Patterns of macrofaunal biodiversity across the Clarion-Clipperton Zone: an area targeted for seabed mining. Frontiers in Marine Science. 2021 Apr 1;8:250.

Drennan R, Wiklund H, Rabone M, Georgieva MN, Dahlgren TG, Glover AG. Neanthes goodayi sp. nov.(Annelida, Nereididae), a remarkable new annelid species living inside deep-sea polymetallic nodules. European Journal of Taxonomy. 2021 Jul 27;760:160-85.

Museum staff

Collaborators

UK biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity.

Invertebrate research

Our scientists are investigating the taxonomy, systematics and biodiversity of groups of invertebrates.

Zoology collections

Our zoology collection has 29 million animal specimens and is rich in voucher, type and historical specimens.