A Secret CIA Program, Reclusive Billionaire, and the Origins of Deep-Sea Mining

A Secret CIA Program, Reclusive Billionaire, and the Origins of Deep-Sea Mining


Guest blog post written by students in the Masters of the Environment Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as part of a capstone project on deep-sea mining. Stay tuned for the next post in this series!


You may have heard about deep-sea mining in the news recently and the race that's gearing up for companies and countries to mine the seabed for nodules containing rare Earth metals needed for "green" technologies. Trillions of modules litter the sea floor, each containing manganese, cobalt, copper, and nickel, important elements for making electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines. Proponents argue that deep-sea mining is essential to avert the worst impacts of climate change and that the remaining land-based sources of these rare Earth metals will come at an enormous environmental cost. Opponents argue that deep-sea mining would be catastrophic for ocean ecosystems and the damage irreversible. David Attenborough has said, “Mining means destruction and in this case it means the destruction of an ecosystem about which we know pathetically little."

And yet commercial deep-sea mining has become a real possibility that could start as soon as this summer. With deep-sea mining bringing the promise of much needed rare metals, it may be surprising to learn that it has roots in a Cold War CIA project involving a reclusive billionaire, nuclear weapons, and a sunken Soviet Submarine.

This unlikely story began in 1968 with the disappearance of a Soviet Submarine known as K-129 in a region of the Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii. K-129 had recently left the Soviet Petropavlovsk naval base and began a typical patrol mission. Due to a supposed mechanical error, the submarine began sinking and soon after vanished, along with its cargo of three ballistic nuclear missiles. The Soviets quickly began searching for the submarine but abandoned efforts after two months.

K-129 original video montage image. Courtesy of filmmaker Michael White via The Maritime Executive.

American radar technology allowed the United States to identify where the submarine sank and to determine that it was 16,500 feet below sea level. Due to the potential intelligence that the Americans could gain from the sunken Soviet submarine, the Department of Defense began to fund a mission to recover the Soviet submarine. It would be an unprecedented technological feat. Not only did the engineers have to recover a multi-ton submarine from 16,500 feet below sea level, but doing so required the utmost secrecy. The Americans knew the international implications if the Soviets discovered what they were attempting.

Engineers from the CIA determined that the most plausible way to retrieve the submarine and its intelligence was to utilize a large claw mechanism hidden within a ship's hull. Through coordination with billionaire business magnate Howard Hughes, the CIA constructed a vessel for carrying the claw and retrieving the submarine covertly. To avoid suspicion from the Soviets, the CIA released a cover story that Hughes was funding a marine research expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the manganese nodules in the deep-sea. After four years of construction carried out and funded by the CIA, the vessel was christened in 1972 and named the Hughes Glomar Explorer.

Computer-generated image of recovery operation. Image courtesy of filmmaker Michael White via The Mariner Executive.

In 1974, the ship embarked on its mission just north of the Clarion Clipperton Zone, one of the Pacific Ocean's largest known deposits of seafloor polymetallic nodules. The Hughes Glomar Explorer successfully lifted a portion of the submarine from the ocean's depths. However, a part of K-129 remained on the seafloor. Following the partial recovery, an unlikely turn of events blew the secrecy of the entire Project Azorian operation. In 1974, a break-in occurred at Howard Hughes' Los Angeles office, and thieves stole documents about the CIA operation. Media coverage ensued, and by June of 1975, the Soviets began patrolling at the location of K-129’s remnants and ended any further CIA-led recovery efforts

A manganese nodule recovered during Project Azorian by the Hughes Glomar Explorer courtesy of the CIA.

Retrieving K-129 was a significant victory for the American intelligence community in the Cold War and proved to be a giant leap forward for deep-sea mining extraction technology. As a result of Project Azorian’s cover story, deep-sea mining was in the public consciousness, and Universities even began teaching courses on the subject. Ironically, the Americans inadvertently recovered nodules during Project Azorian, even though deep-sea mining was merely a ploy for the operation.

Today, deep-sea mining aims to collect many tons of nodules from the depths of the sea for the rare earth metals they contain. Countries like South Korea, India, China, and some European countries have been at the forefront of the technological innovation that has evolved around deep-sea mining, as have  multinational corporations like The Metals Company. One of the largest regions of interest for deep-sea mining in the near future is the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which is south west of the K-129 recovery area.

Two primary phases of deep-sea mining occur today: exploration and extraction. Exploration of potential mining sites includes research vessels utilizing echolocation to scan for potential mining sites. Once potential sites are discovered, remotely operated rovers are sent with sonar technology to give prospective site miners a map. Rovers can then gather samples of the nodules, and prospective miners can determine if the potential mining site is economically viable.  

If the miners decide the site is economically viable, they can move into the extraction phase, which involves sending a remotely operated or autonomous rover to the ocean floor to retrieve the nodules. There are two options for rovers to retrieve the nodules: sucking them through a vent or using a fork-like tool to gather them into the nodule collector. This submersible uncrewed vehicle helps sift sediment plumes from the ocean floor and is a storage mechanism for collected nodules. A riser pipe that uses a centrifugal pump or an air pump will send nodules to a ship on the surface. This surface vessel controls the rovers and stores the recovered nodules. These vessels can store a limited quantity of nodules before a bulk carrier offloads the surface vessel's nodules and return them to shore for processing. Bulk carrier vessels can transport up to 50,000 tons of nodules to shore.

The technology is capable of extracting material from depths of more than 20,000 feet, allowing controversial deep-sea mining to become a real possibility.

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