USGS - science for a changing world

Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Global Ocean Mineral Resources

Photograph of manganese nodule from the Cook Islands.

See a larger version of this bed of manganese nodules, from deep offshore of the Cook Islands.


Countries around the world need metals and minerals to satisfy our burgeoning technology and electronic needs. Even green technologies, such as windmills and electric cars, require large quantities of metals that are often rare and energy intensive to source on land.

As terrestrial sources of these materials dwindle (China produces most of what the U.S. imports), the mining focus has shifted to the unseen parts of our planet that hold potentially larger mineral stores: the deep sea. Iron-manganese crusts, manganese nodules, phosphorites, and hydrothermal vent deposits are four sources of important metals and minerals found on the seafloor. Although mining in the ocean has advantages over mining on land (extraction requires a smaller footprint, for example), economic and technological hurdles as well as environmental concerns have yet to be resolved. Despite these obstacles, the first section of ocean—0.1 square kilometer off Papua New Guinea—was set to be commercially mined in early 2018. Financing the project has proven difficult, delaying the start date to early 2019.

USGS provides expertise in analyzing the metals and other elements in these mineral deposits, which occur in many deep-ocean settings from the Arctic to the Antarctic. USGS also researches environmental issues related to their recovering the mineral resources these deposits contain. Knowing their attributes and how these features form on the seafloor benefits many agencies, including the International Seabed Authority, which regulates mining in international waters and areas leased within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. USGS information about deep ocean minerals helps guide stakeholders to make informed decisions on environmental issues, resource use, and energy production.

Photographs of manganese nodules from the Cook Islands EEZ.

Photographs of example Cook Islands manganese nodules from “Critical metals in manganese nodules from the Cook Islands EEZ, abundances and distributions,” Ore Geology Reviews v.68 (2015), by Hein and others, online at doi:10.1016/j.oregeorev.2014.12.011.

Principal Investigator: James Hein


The goals of the Global Ocean Minerals Study are to

  1. continually assess the state-of-knowledge of the mineral resources and associated environmental issues within the EEZs of Pacific islands of U.S. interest and elsewhere in the global ocean;
  2. analyze and synthesize existing published USGS and other compatible data;
  3. compile, analyze, and make available unpublished USGS data;
  4. collect new data for existing samples if warranted to produce more comprehensive and integrated USGS reports;
  5. collect new samples and data from ships of opportunity for seabed mineral deposits if dedicated cruises are not funded;
  6. provide marine minerals resource data on critical and strategic metals needed for high/emerging-tech, green-tech, energy, and military applications;
  7. provide value-added products based on prior field programs and existing data;
  8. provide liaison participation and expertise on marine mineral issues to national and international organizations, institutions, and agencies;
  9. maintain comprehensive knowledge of global activities concerning marine minerals; and
  10. provide outreach activities directed to education on EEZ and global minerals and associated environmental issues.

Seafloor Massive Sulfide Alteration Study

Principal Investigator: Amy Gartman

Interest in mining seafloor massive sulfides (SMS), which occur as a result of hydrothermal activity in the global ocean, is increasing and will likely begin in earnest within the next several years. The geochemical and environmental implications of this exploitation have not been constrained. The mining of SMS deposits will likely create a new class of abundant micron and sub-micron sized metal sulfide particles. These new particulates may potentially be more reactive than naturally occurring particles, with regard to oxidation and microbial colonization. This Mendenhall Postdoctoral project will evaluate the local-to-global geochemical consequences of the alteration of sulfide particles likely to occur as a result of SMS mining relative to similar particles emitted from natural hydrothermal systems, and will consider potential environmental perturbations due to SMS resource extraction.


The goals of this project are to:

  1. characterize the mineralogy, surface chemistry, and the dissolution/oxidation rate of newly formed hydrothermal precipitates, relative to crushed particles likely to be created through mining;
  2. characterize changes in pH and inorganic carbon chemistry as a result of the dissolution/oxidation of these minerals;
  3. characterize the effect of microbial activity on the rate of dissolution/oxidation of these particles;
  4. evaluate the effect of microbial growth on the carbon budget in these systems; and
  5. use this data to assess the potential spatial and temporal impacts of mined particles on ocean chemistry.

Recent Publications

Arctic Deep-Water Ferromanganese-Oxide Deposits Reflect the Unique Characteristics of the Arctic Ocean - Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 2017

Distance-gradient-based variogram and Kriging to evaluate cobalt-rich crust deposits on seamounts - Ore Geology Reviews, 2017

Marine mineral deposits: New resources for base, precious, and critical metals. Ore Geology Reviews - Ore Geology Reviews, 2017

See all publications


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