Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts.

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How much do you care about human activities in environments that are far away and you’ll probably never visit?

With increasing global demand for natural resources, the extraction of metals and minerals is expected to accelerate rapidly in the coming decade. Coupled with increased conservation of terrestrial natural resources and fast advancing technologies, the need for metals and rare earth elements is fuelling interest in mining mineral deposits from the deep sea. Encompassing the ocean below 200 meters, the deep sea is out of reach for most of us and has long been considered out of sight, out of mind. While scientists warn that deep-sea mining could cause significant loss of biodiversity, knowledge of the risks does not ensure people will be concerned about them. As public views can significantly affect development of human activities and conservation, we set out to ask whether people care about the deep sea.

To get a broader look at how remoteness influences whether people care about an environment, we compare the deep sea to three other environments: Antarctica, remote terrestrial environments, and the Moon.

To study how people value the deep sea and how much they would care about mining activities occurring there, we conducted an online survey on people’s knowledge about these environments, and their views on exploiting them. We were particularly interested in how people value these different environments and the emotions the environments evoke.

Despite its remoteness, we found that the deep sea does matter to most people. Although people knew even less of the deep sea than the Moon, they perceive it likely that mining will take place there in the future. Interestingly, people’s knowledge about an environment had little to do with how much they care about it. In turn, we find that the emotions an environment evokes are much more important in predicting care for an environment. Therefore, while it is important to increase public awareness of the oceans, we must also better acknowledge the role of emotions in driving people’s care for the oceans to look after deep-sea environments in face of increasing human activities.