Seismic Consequences for Whale Populations

I recently met a student at George Mason whose sole passion in life is to “save the whales.” She spoke with such conviction about how beautiful they are and the importance of preserving their populations. Such specific goals pertaining to the protection of a singular area or species have always seemed oddly close-minded to me. There are much larger issues to study that will help  a multitude of unsustainable situations, and I feel that such specific interests can lead to a loss in interdisciplinary communication. However, after looking farther into certain aspects of whale cruelty, I certainly understand the importance of people who are passionate about their topics and possess the strength to pursue them.

The increasing human demand for oil has spurned thousands of consequences in foreign conflict, economic stability, social shift, and environmental damage. The resources necessary to locate, harvest, refine, and transport the oil burned every day are monumental. Although global estimates on “how much oil we have left” are relatively consistent, nations and private companies are constantly searching for new untapped sources. Oil drilling in oceans has become a perceived necessity, and the resulting increase in the technique of sound blasting is placing marine populations at risk.

Seismic airguns are used to shoot pressurized blasts of air underwater in order to detect pockets of gas and oil along the ocean floor. The blasts continue every 10 to 12 seconds for weeks or even months at a time.

Aquatic animals, and specifically whales, depend upon their hearing to survive. Breeding, migration patterns, communication, and food location are all dependent upon auditory function. These sound canons emit sound waves a thousand times more powerful than jet engines and can cause irreversible damage to surrounding populations. Even at 300 miles away from the original source, the sonar used to detect oil is loud enough to retain an intensity of 140 decibels.  A mere 140 decibels has been seen to noticeably alter whale behavior. Air cannon geologic surveys conducted along the coast of California were detected on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2002, four species of whales were found beached in the Bahamas, far from their natural migration routes. Many of these whales suffered from  severe trauma: bleeding around the brain and other tissues coupled with large unnatural bubbles lodged in their organs. All of these injuries are attributed to the use of seismic airguns. When whale species do not alter their migration routes because of the harmful sound blasts, other species do. Common food sources of whales have been found to flee a region as air cannons arrive, forcing whales to leave behind their breeding grounds in order to survive. This temporary diversion can lead to the permanent disruption of whales’ natural compasses.

The U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) organization has also used this strategy to map the ocean floors. In 2014, the USGS announced plans to survey the continental shelf from Maine south to Georgia. These plans have failed to launch, as government officials assess the potential risks to marine life. Similar blocks to the use of air cannons for locating oil and natural gas have been placed in the United States until the country can measure the risks.


One comment

  1. rogerwleblanc · October 29, 2015

    Mackenzie, great blog post. I love that you brought a voice to the issues that arise from oil extraction. Many times this is overlooked in the conversations about climate change – but as you know the way we get fossil fuels from the earth devastate natural ecosystems long before the greenhouse gases make their way to the atmosphere. I am so happy that you are apart of our class this year. I really appreciate your critical thinking about these issues, and enthusiasm to get involved. You are going to have a great and successful time here at Mason.


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