Of things benthic: The seafloor frontier

A dangerous servant and fearful master

The sea has been mankind's servant and master for untold millions of years. As beneficial as it may be to human action, its destructive capabilities are impossible to overstate. The lives of millions of mariners and coastal societies have been extinguished through the fickle whim of wave and tide. As any other natural phenomenon, we must behold the ocean in its entire splendor with great awe and respect, but maintain always the curiosity of how to harness what is sure to confound and harm us. After all, we've done it with wolves and wildcats - how hard can it be to tame some salt water?

Although we've spoken earlier about the high seas - our planet's blue frontier which will be overcome by some of the most stalwart visionaries of our time, it is child's play compared to the black, briny inkiness of the sea floor. The sea floor is one of the areas of our planet that we've neglected more than we care to mention throughout history. Exploring this arcane borderland of human understanding remains the purview of only the most daring, even in an age when there is a flag on the Moon and an average person is a button-press away from the sum of human knowledge.

So fundamentally hostile and alien is this environment, depth maps of the world's seas are scantly accurate at best. Even great inquisitive minds such as that of Socrates dare not tread into the tenebrous domain of things benthic:

"Everything is corroded with brine, and there is no vegetation worth mentioning: scarcely any degree of perfect formation. Only sand, caverns, measureless mud and tracts of slime."

This opinion was reasonable to hold in the ancient times of Greece, but our vats of resolve and knowledge have grown to such an extent that this final great unknown of this planet shan't remain unexplored for much longer. The morbid curiosity of our species won't have it.

Is there anything down there for us?

What's in it for us? Why leave the welcoming and familiar in favor of some hell-scape that promises nothing but adversity and difficulty?

We've made the idealistic argument for the frontier zeitgeist, and would not desire to repeat ourselves. The truth is that the dank depths of the seas house wealth beyond reproach for those with the tenacity to brave the demanding circumstances of the Deep. Resource extraction, agriculture, leisure and a wealth of real estate are attractive prizes for those with a keen eye.

1. Resource extraction

The sea floor holds many extinct hydrothermal vents, which occur at depths of 4,600 to 12,000 ft. These hydrothermal vents contain within them deposits of metals and minerals in a higher concentration than do land-based mines. Metals contained herein include but are not limited to gold, copper, nickel, cobalt, molybdenum and platinum. All of these materials have applications in industry and electronics.

However, many environmental issues arise out of this approach to mining: when mining and refining ore, what one is left with once the sought-after compounds have been extracted are called "tailings". These compounds are effectively refuse in the mining operation, and usually garner no application and must be dispensed with. In terrestrial mining, this more often than not takes form in lake/river acidification. In the ocean, the consequences may be direr still:

Heavy metal toxicity is the least of the environment's worries. What happens when tailings are left in the sea environment can result in sediment plumes - clouds of fine tailings that interfere with the life functions of organisms. Near-bottom plumes clog the filter apparatuses of bottom-feeders, whereas surface plumes can have devastating effects on entire zooplankton colonies, which effectively disrupts entire ecosystems. Also worth noting is that zooplankton are the greatest O2 producers on the planet (terrestrial forests cannot begin to compare) and harming this producer of oxygen may spell doom for more than just the local habitat in the long run.

The only way SSF supports benthic resource extraction is if safety precautions are heeded and good policy exercised. An upcoming conference in May of this year is expected to cement sustainable practices of deep-sea mining of minerals and fossil fuels. The allure of mining and drilling is all too great to be prohibited, but green methods may yet surface.

2. Agriculture

In recent years, aquaculture has begun bringing an ever-rising percentage of our seafood to the dining table. At the beginning of the last century, nearly 100% of all seafood was caught in the wild. Today, a majority of our (primarily fish) seafood originates from lucrative ($13 bil/year in the US) aquaculture beds. These methods stick to the water's surface and to shallow coastal waters to minimize upkeep and transport costs.

We are fully aware that more practical ways of raising wholesome sea-life for commercial purposes is possible:  there exist certain species and processes that cannot be handled in a way other than in their natural habitat. Raising select types of mollusk, fish and crustacean requires proximity to the seabed which may be augmented with certain technologies to make their production more effective.

Geodesic marine cages that can be disassembled at will. Credit: Ocean Farm Technologies

Geodesic marine cages that can be disassembled at will. Credit: Ocean Farm Technologies

The great thing about free enterprise is that ethically concerned entrepreneurs always find a way to leapfrog outdated systems, while also providing an environmentally sounder and overall superior system.

3. Leisure

 The beauty and obscurity of underwater ecosystems is a sight reserved for the well-to-do, through scuba diving and similar pastimes. The underwater frontier has already been broken by innovative hospitality entrepreneurs in the Maldives and Israel. Naturally, we do not expect restaurants to open at 12,000 feet below sea level, but rather to integrate human habitats and workspaces with the surrounding oceanic ecosystems. It is very probable that the 3 points we listed are in ascending order of proximity to the surface (mining requiring the deepest plunge, and leisure being the closest to the surface), but descending order of adoption (people will mine first and think about conservation later).

Ithaa restaurant in the Maldives. Credit: Wikimedia commons

Ithaa restaurant in the Maldives. Credit: Wikimedia commons

 

What could possibly go wrong?

A plethora of health side-effects arise from exposure to the crushing pressures of undersea life, where every meter (3 feet) of water above you exerts an additional 1 atmosphere of pressure on body and structure alike. The deepest a human can dive unassisted by machinery is just shy of 400 feet under the surface. Decompression sickness, ringing ears, blurred vision, and many other problems are caused by the fact that humans did not evolve to handle incredible pressures and issues with air compression.

Challenging the blue frontier will be fought on the surface and seabed level, and it would stand to reason that they can happen simultaneously. The issues of health, engineering, air pressure and logistics pale in comparison to what really chills the blood of seasteading frontiersmen...

Leviathans!

We certainly wish it were Krakens, Megalodons and Cthulhu we were talking about. Unfortunately, we have no such luck - the greatest obstacle to seasteading and seabed transformation are the fact that governmental (get the "Leviathan" joke?) exclusive economic zones extend for 200 nautical miles, restricting any entrepreneurial venture unless approved by the appropriate agencies. Prodigious amounts of lobbying and government cooperation are necessary for the usage of oceanic resources, and small businesspeople and innovators need to look to more accommodating jurisdictions to test out their solutions.

Humans have shuddered to imagine what lies beyond the deep blue for untold generations, only for innovative technology and boundary-pushing spirits to usher in a new age of sea-conquering societies. The boons that the sea may hold just might outweigh the costs, if free people are left to homestead the blue frontier - above and below sea level.

Aleksa Burmazovic

Aleksa is an undergraduate student at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, working on a degree in finance and insurance.

He was involved with European Students for Liberty as a local coordinator in 2016, but has since retired from the organization of ESFL events.

Aleksa is fascinated with the idea of establishing new societies, competitive governance and new regulative structures.

An avid supporter of cryptocurrencies and free trade, he joined Startup Societies Foundation in the summer of 2017 while volunteering for the Startup Societies Conference in San Francisco.