In 1989, German scientists plowed a patch of sea floor off Ecuador to study the possible effects of deep sea mining. They monitored the ten-square-kilometer plot for a few years and then moved on. In the summer of 2015, a new German research vessel returned to the site to explore what had happened in the 26 years since the first excavations in the fragile ecosystem. They found life on the sea floor had scarcely recovered. Not even bacteria have managed to fully recolonize the scars in the ocean floor, researchers found. Other species have never returned. Some lighter-colored sediments thrown up onto the seafloor during the plowing have not darkened as expected. A 1978 exploratory effort by a U.S.-based company also has raised concerns, Schrader wrote. Its extraction of metal lumps and just a four-centimeter layer of sediment reduced the biodiversity of the affected seafloor, including a significant decline in sea worms, according to 2004 scientific survey. With many unanswered questions, scientists are in a race to better understand the impact of the scarring, Schrader noted, while deep-sea mining for manganese nodules and other minerals has again become an area of interest for resource-poor industrial states such as Germany, Japan and South Korea. Island nations such as Tonga and Naru see it as their route to prosperity. Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal, called Schrader’s story “an excellent report on the aftermath of a forgotten sea floor experiment.” Nancy Shute of NPR said: “Schrader’s lively writing takes readers to the depths of the ocean to discover how a long-ago dredging experiment affects life on the seafloor, and how those ecosystems could be shattered by seafloor mining.” In commenting on the award, Schrader noted that floor of the deep sea is “basically terra incognita” and proposed environmental protection measures “are more guestimates than the product of proper research.”  With companies “preparing to send machines the size of houses down there to collect and crush rocks,” he said, “it is very important to have a state-funded research infrastructure available like the German research ships that are there for the long haul and that are funded outside of the logic of short-term projects.”

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