How Norway’s Scientists Are Approaching Deep Sea Mining

Norway is famed for its complex landscapes—mountains, valleys, plunging fjords. This complexity doesn’t stop at the coastline: deep beneath Norway’s seas, manganese crusts cover rock formations. Hydrothermal vents get pushed aside by new seabed. New active vents are routinely discovered, often with new species, while inactive ones sometimes reactivate.

It’s this underwater landscape – manganese crusts and inactive vents – that Norway may soon open for mining. Minerals found there are used in products like smartphones, electric cars, wind turbines, even military weapons. The Norwegian government this week reached an agreement to allow exploratory mining, with an official decision expected early next year. Meanwhile, Norway’s scientists are working to discover deep sea mining’s possible impacts and guide the nascent industry’s future.

At the Centre for Deep Sea Research in coastal Bergen, benthic ecologist Dr Pedro A. Ribeiro uses ROV video to find and characterise seafloor megafauna. He also coordinates the Centre’s Eco-Safe Ridge Mining project. Using experiments like exposing sponges to crushed seafloor material, this project evaluates mining’s environmental risks.

When it started in 2021, it was seen as “a project that could answer all the questions,” says Ribeiro. Since then, knowledge gaps have become clearer: for example, the project looks at the seafloor, but not the water column. “Mining isn’t known for being gentle,” Ribeiro notes: the complexity of Norway’s seabed formations, which must be drilled, crushed, or stripped to get minerals, makes them hard to study. “It’s actually very difficult to identify all possible sources of risk.” The Centre supports regulated exploration, but not commercial exploitation yet.

At the Norwegian Research Centre in Bergen, biologist Dr Thomas Dahlgren also studies seabed life. His work long focused on the Pacific’s Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), where commercial mining is being considered internationally. Last year, he joined EMINENT in Norway, an industry-led project on seafloor mapping and mining. He works in the small environmental section to understand seabed life. “For most of these areas,” he says, “we know very little about who lives there.”

Dahlgren notes that decades of research have just started to describe life in the CCZ’s flat abyssal plains. Norway’s seafloor is more complicated, with less research. “We can expect a lot more, different ecosystems within this area,” Dahlgren says. He believes exploratory work is fine but Norway needs at least another decade to make an informed decision on deep sea mining.

For most of these areas, we know very little about who lives there.

Dr Thomas Dahlgren

Also in Bergen, the Institute of Marine Research focuses on sustainably managing what the sea provides. Among its projects is MAREANO, which maps the seabed from the coast to the deep, producing knowledge that can help inform deep sea mining.

Policy director Dr Peter Haugan believes research might someday allow responsible mining, but shares the concern that too little is yet known about Norway’s deep ocean. Haugan also thinks our innovative world can build products without these minerals. “Projecting [mineral demand] into 2050 or so, based on today’s technology, is like projecting the need for horse carriages in 1910,” he says.

Farther north, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, a deep sea mining pilot program involves fields from biogeochemistry to history. In one project, geologists study potential ore deposits; in another, humanities researchers consider ethical aspects.

To program facilitator Dr Steinar Løve Ellefmo, this interdisciplinary approach is necessary: “A balanced data set allows society to make an informed decision,” he says. Whether or not seabed mining moves forward, Ellefmo believes there’s value in considering it. “I think we owe it to ourselves and our society to investigate the possibility,” he says.

A man holds a black rock
Dr Steinar Løve Ellefmo holding a deep sea nodule. Credit: Supplied

Yet some in Norway’s scientific community are sceptical even of the investigation. Dr Claudiu Eduard Nedelciu is a researcher in the Shaping European Research Leaders for Marine Sustainability program. Two years ago, he planned to investigate seabed mining’s potential impacts. “I slowly realised that by following that research proposal, I would contribute to legitimising deep sea mining,” Nedelciu says. “It felt very wrong from a sustainability and climate sciences perspective.”

Today, his research questions the interest in deep sea mining instead. “Why not redesign the economy away from overconsumption and wastefulness?” he asks. “Why aren’t we questioning the ‘need’ for mining in the first place?” Nedelciu hopes more scientists will begin scrutinising mining in this way.

Marine biologist Kaja Loenne Fjaertoft is also critical of the mining pursuit. Fjaertoft is senior advisor for Sustainable Oceans in Norway’s World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Though not against seabed mining entirely, the WWF advocates a moratorium until more research is done.

“Deep sea ecosystems are already facing so many challenges,” says Fjaertoft: mining could add to stressors like warming and acidification. “We need to make sure there’s a regulatory framework that allows you to push the stop button.” She quotes a Norwegian saying: “Det er aldri for sent å snu – it’s never too late to turn around.”

Though the mining industry and the scientific community have different goals, collaboration between them often informs this debate. The industry-led EMINENT project combines companies and research organisations. The Eco-Safe Ridge Mining project also integrates science and industry, with scientists deciding the research program. Industry involvement can be essential to some projects: mining companies have private information about technology in development, which scientists use for accurate impact research.

Polymetallic nodules containing nickel, cobalt, and manganese recovered from the clarion clipperton zone (ccz) in the pacific ocean.
Polymetallic nodules containing nickel, cobalt, and manganese recovered from the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Scientists who work with industry state the importance of keeping research independent. Dahlgren says, “If a mining industry contract said that they own the data and I’m not allowed to use it for science, then I would do something else.”

Yet some believe companies may use scientific partnerships for unearned credibility. As Haugan says, “I’ve seen examples where companies brag that they have some institution with them, and therefore everything they do is blessed in a way.”

At times, though, it is scientists who run the industry. Norwegian geophysicist Walter Sognnes is CEO of Loke Marine Minerals. Loke holds exploratory licenses in the CCZ, and plans to be active in Norway, too. Sognnes says exploratory mining involves low-impact testing, much like scientific research: “On the exploration side, there is very little environmental impact.”

With more testing, better technology can be developed, and Sognnes believes the time isn’t yet right for commercial mining in Norway. Many questions remain unanswered, he says, about Norway’s seafloor resources and whether mining can be done with an acceptable environmental impact.

The Norwegian government says exploratory mining will be a stepwise, precautionary process. A second Parliamentary decision is required for exploration to move to exploitation. Still, some in Norway’s scientific community are concerned about this process: the exploration decision is being made with limited seafloor research, and it’s not clear how soon exploitation could follow.

No matter how things proceed, Norway’s seabed will long remain mysterious. Describing species alone could take years. Without baseline knowledge about seafloor habitats, how they’re connected, and how they overlap with mineral deposits, no one can know deep sea mining’s impacts.

“I don’t think the authorities, and probably even the industry, know how hard it is, how many resources – human resources, scientists, technology, time, money – are needed to do deep sea research, and how much time we need to examine the data and produce meaningful science,” Ribeiro says. “You have this groundwork that just by itself could take the rest of my career.”

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