By Jim Robbins
Jan. 22, 2019, 24 c
Slow-moving, hulking ships crisscross miles of ocean in a lawn mower pattern, wielding an array of 12 to 48 air guns blasting pressurized air repeatedly into the depths of the ocean.
The sound waves hit the sea floor, penetrating miles into it, and bounce back to the surface, where they are picked up by hydrophones. The acoustic patterns form a three-dimensional map of where oil and gas most likely lie.
The seismic air guns probably produce the loudest noise that humans use regularly underwater, and it is about to become far louder in the Atlantic. As part of the Trump administration’s plans to allow offshore drilling for gas and oil exploration, five companies are in the process of seeking permits to carry out seismic mapping with the air guns all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Central Florida to the Northeast, for the first time in three decades. The surveys haven’t started yet in the Atlantic, but now that the ban on offshore drilling has been lifted, companies can be granted access to explore regions along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.
And air guns are now the most common method companies use to map the ocean floor.
“They fire approximately every 10 seconds around the clock for months at a time,” said Douglas Nowacek, a professor of marine conservation technology at Duke University. “They have been detected 4,000 kilometers away. These are huge, huge impacts.”
The prospect of incessant underwater sonic tests is the latest example cited by environmentalists and others of the growing problem of ocean noise, spawning lawsuits against some industries and governments as well as spurring more research into the potential dangers for marine life.
Some scientists say the noises from air guns, ship sonar and general tanker traffic can cause the gradual or even outright death of sea creatures, from the giants to the tiniest — whales, dolphins, fish, squid, octopuses and even plankton. Other effects include impairing animals’ hearing, brain hemorrhaging and the drowning out of communication sounds important for survival, experts say.