Atlantic Ocean Noise About to Get Noisier

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High-powered seismic air guns could soon be vastly increasing the submarine noise levels off the Atlantic coast of the United States, potentially harming marine life. The air guns are used to create powerful sound waves that move through the water column and into the sea floor where they become seismic waves that help illuminate geological structures that could contain petroleum reservoirs.

Last week the Obama administration released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for oil and gas exploration on the East Coast that could open the door to permits being for seismic air gun surveys from Florida to New Jersey just months from now.

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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) jumped on the EIS, calling it “a capitulation to the forces of drill-baby-drill.”

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“Airgun exploration is not only a gateway drug to offshore drilling but, as the scientific community has recognized, a major assault on the oceans in itself,” wrote NRDC's Michael Jasny just hours after the EIS was released.

“Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end. Now imagine that you depend on your hearing to feed, mate, communicate, and do just about everything else necessary for survival.” That, he said, is what wildlife will have to deal with when the air guns start blasting.

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But has that really been the case in the Gulf of Mexico, where the exploration technique has been employed for many years?

“There really hasn't been a lot of data,” said oceanographer Douglas Nowacek of the Duke University Marine Lab. “The government is (now) where it should have been before it started in the Gulf of Mexico. People were not able to participate in the Gulf of Mexico.”

He and his colleagues have studied the effects on the ability of sperm whales to hunt at depth and found the whales were changing some of their hunting echolocation sounds in response to the air gun sounds. Other research has found everything from little response by animals, to changes in feeding behaviors and even displacement of commercial fish, Nowacek said.