Riches of the deep


PICTURE THIS: two miles down in the North Atlantic and 1,000 miles offshore, black smoke and super-heated water is billowing from a crack in the ocean floor. As we learned this week, exotic fish, crabs and tubeworms live and thrive in this lightless and toxic environment, causing a rewriting of textbooks.

The RV Celtic Explorerand Irish scientists are exploring the last great frontier on earth courtesy of Government funding. It is not an altruistic exercise. The volcanic vents provide valuable information not only on conditions in which life can develop; they also generate massive amounts of metal sulphides, which may contain silver, mercury, lead, nickel and zinc. Such rich deposits are already extensively mined onshore.

Ireland lays claim to 125,000 square kilometres of underwater territory and overlaying seas – five times its landmass – but research has only begun to expose its potential. Integrated mapping projects of the seabed are providing information on suitable sites for offshore renewable energy projects and for the routing of electricity cables from wind, wave and tidal generators. They also assist in petrochemical exploration and in the charting of safe shipping lanes.

The Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute are involved in offshore work where new technologies are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. It is the same on land where geoscience has begun to impact on the public imagination because of its potential to generate jobs and economic benefits. State investment has been estimated to return four to six times the capital outlay. That was certainly the case with the Tellus project, a subsurface geology survey designed in Dublin but only completed in Northern Ireland. Based on the information gained, the Belfast authorities took in four times the survey costs in new mining licence fees. The work is now being undertaken here.

Detailed geological information drives mineral exploration, fishing activity, energy projects and various ecological issues. But it doesn’t stop there. Studies are currently under way assessing the availability of onshore geothermal energies for electricity generation. Water hot enough to do so with existing technology has been widely found at 5,000 metres. The work goes on. Knowledge of Ireland’s complex geology is incomplete. That must be remedied if long-term water demands are to be met through the exploitation of aquifers. Government investment in such basic, life-enhancing information must not become an optional extra.