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Oceans 'can sustain 10.5 billion for centuries to come'

24 October 2013

The world’s oceans are capable of sustaining 10.5 billion people at a European standard of living for hundreds of centuries to come, according to an article by Lawrence Cathles, Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science at Cornell University, to be published in a Geological Society special publication this week.

‘What is most lacking is optimism’, Cathles claims, outlining what he describes as ‘an optimist’s prescription for the future.’ Global population, currently at 7.13 billion, is expected to peak at 10.5 billion by 2113. Cathles outlines the main challenges to improving the living standards of these 10.5 billion as energy, minerals and food, arguing that all are capable of being met by the world’s reserves, largely to be found in oceans.

To meet the energy challenge, Cathles argues that the most feasible, environmentally sustainable and realistic option is nuclear power. Whilst land resources of uranium are expected to last no longer than the next 100 years, the ocean uranium resource is capable of sustaining 10.5 billion people for over 100 centuries.

Similarly, ocean resources of copper, a fundamental part of much of our technology, could be as much as 241 billion tonnes – enough to supply 10.5 billion people for 112 centuries. Metals such as zinc and lithium are similarly abundant, as are rare earth elements. Phosphate, critical for agriculture, is present in the oceans at quantities capable of sustaining requirements for thousands of centuries.

‘We have plenty of resources’ Cathles argues. ‘We do not need to fight over them.’

He suggests that natural gas, such as shale gas, could provide a natural means of transitioning from dependence on fossil fuels to carbon free nuclear and other energy sources.

‘Global warming will not be severe for a 100 year transition, and substitutes of gas for coal and new oil will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by c. 40% of what could be achieved by an immediate substitution of low carbon energy sources, which is not feasible.’

While some are hesitant at the prospect of ocean floor mining, Cathles suggests it is less environmentally impactful than the equivalent processes on land.

‘Nature could do much of the work required to extract the needed uranium from the oceans, and the footprint of the required facilities is tiny.’

Similarly, with metals, ‘recovery will involve considerably less environmental damage than occurs in the mining of land resources.’

Embracing the challenge of a European standard of living for all a century from now is, Cathles says, ‘the most constructive goal imaginable.

‘We have a grant challenge that is profoundly positive and a more than worthy goal...Failing to try and meet it will be much more risky than trying and failing.’


  • Article reference: Cathles, L., 'Future Rx: optimism, preparation, acceptance of risk', from Jenkin, G. R. T., Lusty, P. A. J.,Mcdonald, I., Smith, M. P., Boyce, A. J.&Wilkinson, J. J. (eds) 'Ore Deposits in an Evolving Earth.' Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 393.
  • The article is published as Gold Open Access, and can be downloaded via the Lyell Collection.