Plan France 2030: the exploration of the deep seabed, a wealth still unknown

Emmanuel Macron presented his France 2030 plan on Tuesday, October 12, and among the announcements of the Head of State there is the exploration of the deep seabed. These zones located at a depth of more than 4,000 m may cover two thirds of the planet, but very little is known about them. Indeed, 95% of these deep oceans remain to be explored.

In addition, there are now 250,000 living underwater species. But there are probably between 1 million and 10 million more to be discovered; up to 40 times more, estimates Jean Marc Daniel, director of the department responsible for deep sea exploration at Ifremer.

In addition, these species have the particularity of living in extreme conditions: cold, total darkness, pressure up to 1000 times greater than atmospheric pressure, absence of oxygen. They have therefore developed adaptation strategies that could feed into medical research. Researchers have already identified marine microorganisms that could advance cancer research. In deep water, the particular cooperation between shrimps and certain bacteria (to exchange energy) could also serve to better understand the mechanisms of immunity.

The deep seabed is therefore a huge research and development laboratory. But that we observe mainly by satellite today, therefore from very far away.

Alongside this living wealth, there is also the issue of underwater mineral resources. The seabed is also a source of envy because it contains highly sought-after metals, including cobalt, manganese and nickel, metals that are used in the composition of electric batteries. In the depths, they are found in particular in the form of small pebbles, polymetallic nodules, which have taken hundreds of thousands of years to form.

Hence the concern of NGOs who fear that all these mining projects will end up seeing the light of day, without a sufficient environmental framework. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopted in September 2021 a moratorium on this deep-sea mining, a moratorium on which France abstained. A mining code is also under discussion at the international level.

What could the two billion euros announced over five years be used for concretely, and which are to be shared with space research? Beyond the funding of research programs to measure the environmental impact of the explorations, there are also technical challenges to be met: diving to 5,000 m depth, in the dark and with enormous pressure, requires massively robotizing the observations. We will therefore need industrial investments, as for space.

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