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David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining

Oceans
David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining
International Monetary Fund / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sir David Attenborough wants a ban on deep-sea mining.


The 93-year-old conservationist spoke out in an interview with Sky News Thursday in conjunction with a new report that warns of the potentially devastating consequences of extracting metals and minerals from the deep places of the ocean. The practice could harm biodiversity, limit the ocean's ability to support life and even disrupt its ability to store carbon, worsening the climate crisis.

"We should not go in and trash an area of the globe about which we know hardly anything until we've done the proper research - in short we want a moratorium against action of industrialising the deep-sea," Attenborough told Sky.

The report Attenborough backed was published by Flora and Fauna International (FFI) Thursday, a conservation group of which Attenborough serves as vice president. It comes as there is growing interest in deep-sea mining, defined by FFI as mining below 200 meters (approximately 656 feet), as deposits of minerals used in batteries and mobile phones are discovered, The Guardian reported. The international rules governing the new practice will be decided at a meeting of the UN International Seabed Authority in July.

While the impact of mining above 200 meters is well understood, science has yet to learn much about the deep ocean, making it difficult to assess mining's impacts there. The FFI report is the first to seriously consider the risks of the practice, and it drew some troubling conclusions.

Deep-sea mining could:

  1. Disturb pristine ecosystems
  2. Create far-reaching plumes of sediment that could kill marine life far from the mining site
  3. Kill microbes in sediments and hydrothermal vents that reduce methane and carbon
  4. Disrupt the ocean's "Biological Pump" that distributes nutrients and sucks carbon out of the atmosphere
  5. Expose deep-sea life to toxic metals
  6. Worsen ocean acidification through the mining of sulphide deposits on the seafloor

The risk of such impacts in a little-understood ecosystem is why Attenborough is joining FFI in calling for a ban on the practice.

"Whatever you do please do the science before you go in and destroy - because that's what it is - mining is a polite word, mining also means destruction. Destruction of an ecosystem of which we know pathetically little," he told Sky.

FFI acknowledged that deep-sea mining is sometimes portrayed as part of the solution to the climate crisis, because it is a potential source of many metals needed for lithium-ion batteries. However, Director Pippa Howard wrote that the risks associated with the practice made it necessary to search for other solutions, such as developing less-metal dependent technologies like hydrogen fuel cells or batteries from materials extracted from sea water.

"We need to shatter the myth that deep-seabed mining is the solution to the climate crisis!" Howard wrote. "It is nonsense that this form of mining is a 'light' alternative to terrestrial mining and that all the cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese lying 'for the taking' on the bottom of the oceans are some kind of silver bullet."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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