China participates in several ambitious manned dives to explore the deepest part of the South China Sea this week. The Wall Street Journal details the commercial, scientific and military implications of this exploration:
The U.S. led undersea exploration and mining efforts for several decades thereafter, but commercial interest waned in the 1980s and 1990s because international prices for nickel, copper and other commodities thought to be most easily mined from the deep seabed at the time were insufficiently high.
The U.S. Navy used to operate three manned submersibles, including one, called the Sea Cliff, that was capable of going down to 6,000 meters, but didn’t replace it after its retirement because of defense cutbacks in 1998.
Now, many experts say the U.S. risks falling behind potential commercial and military competitors as rising commodity prices make undersea mining more profitable, and China and Russia apply for rights to explore newly discovered deep-sea deposits thought to hold larger quantities of silver, gold, copper, zinc and lead in particular.
“As the submersible goes deeper, more pressure will be exerted on the craft, so the design requires a very high standard when it comes to preventing leaks,” said Xu Qinan, a researcher at the China Ship Scientific Research Center affiliated to China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and Jiaolong’s chief designer. “We used titanium alloy to make the craft, which is flexible and sustainable under high pressure.”
Meanwhile, the U.N. approved Beijing’s plan to explore the ocean floor between Africa and Antarctica. From the Wall Street Journal:
ISA, meeting at its headquarters in Jamaica, said it had approved on Tuesday 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.
ISA also approved applications from private companies sponsored by members states—the Pacific islands of Tonga and Nauru—to explore seabed mineral deposits in international waters. That was a first; it had previously accepted applications only from states and state entities.