Tales of the deep

There’s a whole lot at the bottom of the sea. And we’re only beginning to understand it.

Bottom of an ocean

“We know far less about deep oceans than outer space,” says John Hannigan, an environmental sociologist and author of the book, The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans. Hannigan’s book goes deep – very deep – into the global maneuverings over who controls the lowest reaches of the ocean floor.

Research into oceans is widespread, but the deep oceans are a “blind spot among researchers,” says Hannigan. “Most research is about coastlines and coral reefs.”

There’s more than research to be done. There are strategic political advantages to be gained. Valuable mineral and energy resources to tap. And there are those who want to protect the depths from being overly exploited.

“There’s a cold war reigniting under the surface of the ocean,” says Hannigan, a professor in the Department of Sociology. “The oceans are a political chess board.” Areas such as the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean are just two regions contested by multiple countries.

The vast array of natural resources up for grabs include oil, natural gas, gold and copper. Of special interest to industrial miners are manganese nuggets (nodules) the size of potatoes that cover large areas of the ocean floor. Scooping them up with large machines would likely disturb the seabed and seriously destroy the deep-sea habitat. There’s more, though.

Sitting at or just below the seabed on continental margins and shelves worldwide are frozen crystals of methane gas hydrates. They are inert while frozen, but potentially highly explosive when brought to the surface—an untapped energy source that, so far, is prohibitively dangerous to extract.

“They haven’t figured out how to get to them yet,” Hannigan says. “But if they could capture them, they would solve the world’s energy problems.”

But this risky energy source concerns many who worry about the what could happen when the hydrates are liberated from the seabed, rising to the surface. This leads to the question of who controls the global ocean. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out the rights of nations to their coastal waters, and designates the seabed as an international terrain which belongs to all humankind. Just about everything else is considered an “Area Beyond National Jurisdiction”.

“Most of the ocean doesn’t belong to anybody,” says Hannigan. And that’s where the trouble lies.


The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans is published by Polity Press.