Last summer “three Chinese scientists plunged to the bottom of the South China Sea in a tiny submarine” and planted the Chinese flag on the ocean’s floor. [“China Explores a Frontier 2 Miles Deep,” by William J. Broad, New York Times, 11 September 2010] Broad notes that the scientists’ descent “signaled Beijing’s intention to take the lead in exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine.” Obviously, three men in a submarine “the size of a small truck” are not equipped to mine the riches of the deep; but, exploration is the first step leading to exploitation. What is there to be exploited in the oceans’ depths? Broad claims, “The global seabed is littered with what experts say is trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral nodules as well as many objects of intelligence value: undersea cables carrying diplomatic communications, lost nuclear arms, sunken submarines and hundreds of warheads left over from missile tests.” He continues:
“The small craft that made the trip — named Jiaolong, after a mythical sea dragon — was unveiled publicly [in late August 2010] after eight years of secretive development. It is designed to go deeper than any other in the world, giving China access to 99.8 percent of the ocean floor. Technically, it is a submersible. These craft differ from submarines in their small size, their need for a mother ship on the surface, and their ability to dive extraordinarily far despite the darkness and the crushing pressures. The world has only a few.”
Deep-diving submersibles are not new. The United States, Russia, France, and Japan all operate such vehicles. The world’s oldest such vessel is the U.S. Navy-owned Deep Submergence Vehicle named Alvin (named in honor of Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution engineer and geophysicist who helped pioneer deep submergence research and technology). [“Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin“] The Alvin was built in 1964 and has made nearly 4500 dives. Despite its age, Alvin “can reach nearly 63 percent of the global ocean floor.” The WHOI article on Alvin notes:
“The sub’s most famous exploits include locating a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea in 1966, exploring the first known hydrothermal vent sites in the 1970s, and surveying the wreck of RMS Titanic in 1986. Alvin carries two scientists and a pilot as deep as 4,500 meters (about three miles) and each dive lasts six to ten hours. … Though it is the world’s oldest research submersible, Alvin remains state-of-the-art due to numerous reconstructions made over the years.”
Compared to Alvin‘s operational depth limit of 4,500 meters, the “Jiaolong is meant to go as deep as 7,000 meters, or 4.35 miles, edging out the current global leader. Japan’s Shinkai 6500 can go as deep as 6,500 meters.” Broad continues:
“China is moving cautiously. Jiaolong’s sea trials began quietly [in 2009] and are to continue until 2012, its dives going deeper in increments. ‘They’re being very cautious,’ Dr. [Don Walsh, a pioneer of deep-ocean diving], said. ‘They respect what they don’t know and are working hard to learn.’ In an interview, Dr. Walsh said that the Chinese were especially interested in avoiding the embarrassment of a disaster that ends with the aquanauts’ entrapment or death. … Still, China is already waving flags. … Wang Weizhong, a Chinese vice minister of science and technology, said that the Jiaolong’s sea trials ‘marked a milestone’ for China and global exploration. The recent successes of the craft, he said, … ‘laid a solid foundation for its practical application in resource surveys and scientific research.'”
Although the Jiaolong has avoided exploration in contested ocean areas, Broad notes that, “with expanding political ambitions and territorial claims in neighboring seas, [China] has paid special attention to oceanography and building a blue-water navy, one that operates in the deep waters of open oceans.” Although the designed operational depth limit of the Jiaolong is 7,000 meters, it has yet to test those limits. During its most recent dive, the Jiaolong descended “to 5,057 meters (16,591 feet).” [“China Makes Milestone Dive,” by Jeremy Page, Wall Street Journal, 27 July 2011] Although that depth sets a Chinese record, it has yet to establish a new depth record currently held by the Japanese. Page reports that an attempt on that record will probably take place sometime next year. Even operating at a depth of around 5,000 meters, Page reports that the Jiaolong “is capable of reaching 70% of the ocean floor.” Page continues:
“Japan’s Shinkai can go down to 6,500 meters, Russia’s Mir and France’s Nautile to 6,000 meters, and the U.S.’s Alvin to 4,500 meters, although an upgraded version of the Alvin, designed to reach 6,500 meters, is scheduled to be ready by 2015. The capability of such vessels is significant as rising prices for many industrial commodities mean there is growing interest among state-run and private mining companies in exploiting mineral resources under the oceans, which cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface.”
Page reports that Chinese officials readily admit that “the Jiaolong is designed to explore for valuable mineral resources on the ocean floor.” He continues:
“The British journal Nature Geoscience published a paper this month in which Japanese researchers claimed to have discovered vast deposits of rare-earth minerals—used in a variety of high-tech products—on the ocean floor east and west of Hawaii at depths ranging from 3,500 meters to 6,000 meters. China hasn’t addressed whether it will explore for rare-earth deposits specifically. The Jiaolong is diving at the site in the Pacific because China was granted rights to explore for minerals there in 2001 by the International Seabed Authority, a U.N. body that oversees mining in international waters. ISA, meeting at its headquarters in Jamaica, also approved … applications from China and Russia—the first from any countries—to explore relatively newly discovered deposits called polymetallic sulphides that form around volcanic vents in ridges on the seabed. China applied last year to explore the site in the Southwest Indian Ridge, which bisects the ocean between Africa and the Antarctic. Russia applied to explore a Mid-Atlantic Ridge site. U.S. scientists in an Alvin discovered polymetallic sulphides, which contain base metals that include copper, lead and zinc, as well as gold and silver, in 1979, when they found vents spewing superheated fluids on the ocean floor off the west coast of Mexico. But many experts say that U.S. investment in such research has declined over the past two decades, even as some resource-hungry emerging economies stepped up their efforts to develop deep-sea exploration technology.”
Page notes that one obstacle preventing the U.S. from pursuing a more vigorous exploration program is “that it is hasn’t ratified the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and so is only an observer, rather than a full member of ISA.” For years, U.S. Navy officials have urged Congress to ratify the UNCLOS agreement. Page reports, “China, which has ratified the convention and is an ISA member, has been active in deep-sea exploration since 2002, when it launched a program that included developing the Jiaolong.”
Although the wonders of “the abyss” are as fascinating as the wonders of space, any exploitation of ocean resources is more likely to involve unmanned vehicles than manned ones. But, just as with the space program, manned activities historically generate more publicity than unmanned activities. It remains unclear when mining the resources of the deep will become economically feasible; but, what is apparent, is that countries that have done the exploration will be in a better position to exploit known deposits than those who haven’t done any exploration once that tipping point is reached.
Scientists at Rutgers University believe that small, semi-autonomous submersibles are likely to perform much of the exploration in years ahead. A couple of years ago, they helped develop a small submersible glider nicknamed Scarlet that made a 221-day trip across the Atlantic. Following that epic journey, Clayton Jones, an engineer who works at Teledyne Webb Research, the company that made Scarlet, said, “In a decade we think it will be commonplace to have roving fleets of these gliders making transoceanic trips around the world.” [“Submersible glider spent months collecting data on Atlantic waters,” by David Brown, Washington Post, 15 December 2009]. Scarlet collected oceanographic data. It wasn’t built or equipped to look for deep ocean resources. In concept, however, such exploratory vehicles are probably on the books if not in work. Whatever the future holds, China has made it clear that it wants to remain on the cutting edge of oceanographic exploration and exploitation.