Investigating the depths

14/01/2016 - 15:30

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The recent commissioning of a $120 million research vessel, the RV Investigator, could be a game changer for scientists and the mining sector.

Investigating the depths
LONG HAUL: The RV Investigator, seen here in Fremantle Port, can take a crew of up to 40 scientists on 58-day trips, or 10,000 miles, twice as long as its predecessor the Southern Surveyor. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The recent commissioning of a $120 million research vessel, the RV Investigator, could be a game changer for scientists and the mining sector.

The RV Investigator can venture out to sea on 58-day trips, or 10,000 miles, twice as long as its predecessor the Southern Surveyor.

 

According to one of Australia’s leading igneous petrologists (experts in the study of rocks), exploration of underwater volcanic structures holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of the world’s mineral deposits, including long-established strongholds and new offshore mining prospects that have previously been deemed economically unviable.

Australian National University professor Richard Arculus, who is co-chief scientist on board the RV Investigator, which left Fremantle Ports earlier this month for the remote sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald islands, told Business News discoveries of underwater volcanic activity were growing.

Hot springs driven by underwater volcanic activity are one of two main reasons our oceans are salty (runoff from rivers is the other).

They are also a major contributor to mineral rich systems around the world, a fact that has prompted two North American companies to explore for nearby high-grade copper, gold, zinc and other minerals found more than 1.5 kilometres under the ocean surface.

Professor Arculus, who is not involved with TSX-listed Nautilus Minerals, which is exploring the Manus basin offshore Papua New Guinea, or US-based Neptune Minerals, which has a Sydney office and holds offshore tenements in seven countries in the Western Pacific, said the advent of robotic technologies offered unique opportunities.

“It’s kind of economic ... because the deposits they’re mining are so much richer, so much more concentrated (in) copper and gold than the mine on land, that’s the trade-off,” he said.

Professor Arculus and the international scientific community’s interest in underwater volcanoes was driven primarily by wanting to understand how they contributed to current day formations on land, such as Broken Hill in NSW, which was formed 1 billion years ago.

 

“The first one of these underwater hot springs that was discovered was in 1979 off the Galapagos Islands, so we’re talking about 35 years we’ve known about them,” Professor Arculus said.

“We’ve got no idea about a lot of this. It’s a whole area of the way the earth works that we have very little idea about.”

The RV Investigator provides scientists with the opportunity to discover underwater volcanoes on a more regular basis, including in the East Indian Ocean, where international surveyor Fugro’s search for the downed flight MH370 has located numerous volcanoes while covering 80,000 square kilometres of a planned 120,000sqm priority search area.

Professor Arculus said it was extremely rare to see an underwater volcano erupting live and continued exploration was key to better understand them and the natural world.

To that end, he is leading the expedition to the Heard and McDonald islands, 4,000km south-west of Perth and 2,000km north of Australia’s base in Antarctica, with his search to be guided in part by seals.

CSIRO scientists who tagged elephant seals that have been active in the Kerguelen Plateau near Heard Island found about half a dozen clusters where the seals are reporting sources of hot water.

“It’s almost like they’re going down 1,000 metres and having a little bit of a sauna,” he said.

Along with evidence of young volcanic rocks being dredged up by deep-sea fishermen in the area, Professor Arculus is confident the RV Investigator will make new discoveries in the area.

“There’s an international community interested in all this. There’s a large number of ships. American, Japanese, New Zealand, Korean, German, French, English all looking at this sort of activity globally. It’s kind of a frontier,” he said.

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