What if Tropic's treasure was not tellurium, but sponges and corals?

About 500 kilometers from the Canary Island of El Hierro, the Tropic submarine mount, whose guardianship claims Spain, houses huge reserves of essential metals in high technology and renewable energy, but that may not be its only treasure, nor the most valuable - as you look at it - but their sponge and coral habitats.

Located 269 nautical miles from the port of La Restinga (El Hierro), the southern limit of the Canary Islands, Tropic is an ancient volcano that rises on the Atlantic bed from depths of 4,200 meters to just under 1,000 meters below the ocean and whose existence has been known for a long time.

However, its worldwide fame is recent, dating back to 2016, to the British scientific expedition that discovered that the ferromanganese crusts that line its slopes have tellurium concentrations almost unprecedented in any other site on the planet. And not only of tellurium, also of cobalt and other elements classified as strategic by the European Commission itself.

The latest issue of the journal "Science" gives him figures: if the calculations of the team that Tropic explored from the James Cook ship are correct, there is enough cobalt on that hill to build 277 million electric cars (54 times the current world fleet of those vehicles) and tellurium enough to make solar panels that alone would cover half of the UK's electricity consumption, the seventh largest economic power on the planet.

But it remains to be seen that one day that mineral wealth can be exploited, not only because of the technical difficulties that underwater mining still entails, but because of the legal mess that surrounds Mount Tropic.

Geologically, Tropic is one more among dozens of mountains in the so-called "Underwater Province of the Canary Islands" and the United Nations has for five years on the table a request from Spain to assume ownership, expanding the continental shelf of the archipelago from the current 200 miles until 300.

However, Spain's claim of that area of ​​the Atlantic is superimposed on Mount Tropic that could also be made by Western Sahara, administered by Morocco.

Beyond the conflict of political and legal interests, international scientific teams begin to publish works that warn that in Tropic there is more than raw materials for a dreamed green technological revolution, there are very valuable ecosystems, relatively scarce and with a state of conservation " pristine".

It is the thesis defended in the magazine "Frontiers in Marine Sciencies" fourteen researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh (United Kingdom), Azores and Porto (Portugal), Bergen (Norway), Sorbonne (France) and Nova Southeastern (USA), in addition to the National Center of Oceanography (NOC) of the United Kingdom. And among them is the scientific director of the mission that discovered the tellurium site, Bramley Murton, of the MarineE-Tech program at NOC.

This group of scientists, headed by Berta Ramiro Sánchez, from the Edinburgh School of Geosciences, maintains that this underwater mount still in international waters must be protected under the figure of Ecological and Biologically Significant Area, because it houses "numerous vulnerable marine ecosystems" .

Specifically, they detail that the video images themselves taken by the robots of the expedition that the tellurium discovered show that Tropic is covered by corals of fifteen species and sponges known as hexactinellidas (Poliopogon amadou) also documented in some seabed of the Canary Islands, of Azores or from Brazil, but here they have "unique" densities and characteristics

These images, they add, also show deep-sea squid eggs, which suggest that it is a breeding area for that species, as well as colar gardens comparable to those documented in other submarine mountains of the Canary Islands such as Banco de la Concepción (northeast of Lanzarote) or El Hierro Ridge.

"Tropic is home to diverse and almost pristine benthic communities, including several vulnerable marine ecosystems" - they underline - that have grown thanks to the privileged nutrient conditions that provide the outcrop of deep waters in North Africa and the contribution of minerals from the limestones of the Sahara.

And above all, they emphasize, these are ecosystems formed by extremely slow-growing species, very vulnerable to human impacts such as trawling or deep-sea mining. And they were hardly going to bear the impact that their precious 20-centimeter crust would be ripped off to that underwater mount to extract "high-tech" minerals from it.

José María Rodríguez

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