Comparison of nearly 1,300 chemical analyses of seafloor sulphides reveals thatdeposits in different volcanic and tectonic settings have different concentrationsof metals. Relative to samples from sediment-starved mid-ocean ridges, massivesulphides formed in basaltic to andesitic environments of back-arc spreadingcentres (573 samples) are characterized by high average concentrations of zinc(17%), lead (0.4%) and barium (13%), but little iron. Polymetallic sulphides atback-arc rifts in continental crust (40 samples) also have low iron content butare commonly rich in zinc (20%) and lead (12%), and have high concentrationsof silver (1.1%, or 2,304 grams/t). In general, the bulk composition of seafloorsulphide deposits in various tectonic settings is a consequence of the nature of the volcanic source rocks from which the metals are leached.High concentrations of gold have recently been found in sulphide samples fromback-arc spreading centres, whereas the average gold content for deposits at mid-ocean ridges is only 1.2 g/t (1,259 samples). Sulphides from the Lau back-arcbasin have gold content of up to 29 g/t with an average of 2.8 g/t (103samples). In the Okinawa Trough, gold-rich sulphide deposits with up to 14 g/tof gold (average 3.1 g/t, 40 samples) occur in a back-arc rift within continentalcrust. Preliminary analyses of sulphides in the Eastern Manus Basin reveal 15 g/t with a maximum of 55 g/t gold (26 samples). High gold content up to 21 g/thas been found in barite chimneys in the Woodlark Basin. The most gold-richseafloor deposit found to date is located at Conical Seamount in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, close to Lihir Island. Maximum goldconcentrations in samples collected from the summit plateau of this seamount(2.8 km basal diameter at 1,600 m water depth, summit at 1,050 m) range upto 230 g/t with an average of 26 g/t (40 samples), which is about 10 times theaverage value for economically-mineable gold deposits on land.
Estimates for several deposits on the mid-ocean ridges suggest a size between 1million and 100 million tonnes. However, gauging the continuity of sulphideoutcrops is difficult and little is usually known about the thickness of thedeposits. By far the largest deposits are found on failed and heavily-sedimentedbut still hydrothermally-active oceanic ridges. Drilling carried out by theinternational Ocean Drilling Program at the sediment-covered Middle Valley deposit on the northern Juan de Fuca Ridge off the northwestern United Stateshas indicated about 8-9 million tonnes of sulphide ore. Drilling 125 m into theactive Trans-Atlantic Geotraverse (TAG) hydrothermal mound, located at 3,650m water depth on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at 26°N, indicated about 2.7 milliontonnes of sulphide ore above the seafloor and approximately 1.2 million t in theunderlying deposit, which geologists call the stockwork. Massive sulphide minesas large as Kidd Creek in Canada (135 million t) or Neves Corvo in Portugal(262 million t) have yet to be discovered at the seafloor.The largest known marine sulphide deposit is the Atlantis II Deep in the RedSea, which was discovered more than 10 years before the first black smoker atthe East Pacific Rise. The Atlantis II Deep mineralization consists largely of metalliferous muds rather than massive sulphides. A detailed evaluation of the40-km2 deposit has indicated 94 million tonnes of dry ore with 2.0% zinc,0.5% copper, 39 g/t silver and 0.5 g/t gold, for a precious metal contenttotalling roughly 4,000 t of silver and 50 t of gold. A pilot-mining test at 2,000m depth has shown that this deposit can be successfully mined.
Marine mining appears to be feasibleunder certain conditions, ideally including (1) high base-metal and/orgold grades, (2) site location not toofar from land, and (3) shallow waterdepth not significantly exceeding2,000 m (although the technology exists for mining in deeper water).Under these circumstances, massivesulphide mining can be economically attractive, considering that the entiremining system is portable and can bemoved from site to site. Aninvestment in mining systems andships would thus not be tied to asingle location as is the case on land, where a typical mine development ina remote area including all infrastructurerequires a substantial initial investment.Seafloor massive sulphide mining will likely focus on relatively small areas of theseafloor and largely be restricted to the surface (strip mining) and shallow subsurface (open cast mining) to recover sulphide mounds and chimney fields atthe seafloor and replacement ore bodies in the stockwork zone just below it.
Massive sulphide ore (Peter Herzig)Cross-section of a sulphide chimney(Peter Herzig)