Arctic Drilling Noise and Shipping Traffic May Cause Problems for Whales

Two bowhead whales swim together. Photo: NOAA

Beneath the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, bowhead whales swim through the darkness, filtering hundreds of millions of small crustaceans through their baleen to nourish their 150,000-pound bodies and keep thick the layer of blubber that keeps them warm. They use bellowing calls to communicate and to help move through the fields of ice they call home.

Their existence, however, is about to change. As sea ice cover continues to decline in summer (in fact, this past June has seen record-low Arctic sea ice extent), oil companies are moving in with drilling equipment and shipping companies are looking to chart new routes through previously inaccessible waters. The Arctic is set to bustle with unprecedented human activity, which means that the ocean is about to become a much noisier place—a change that could spell trouble for vocal species like the bowhead whale.

“An oil spill may be more dramatic in terms of actually exposing animals to toxic substances,” John Hildebrand, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, told the Star-Telegram. “But the stress that may come from the increased noise is something that we should be concerned about.”

Oceanic noise pollution has long raised concerns. In recent decades, the ocean has become louder, largely due to shipping. It’s estimated that the northeastern Pacific is as much as 10-12 dB louder than it was in the 1960s.

Sound travels much faster and farther in water than in air, which means that marine animals can hear something occurring miles away. When startled by loud noises, like those cause by seismic-survey operations in the oil and gas industry, dolphins tend to ascend quickly. This can cause them to develop “the bends,” a potentially deadly illness sometimes suffered by scuba divers. Mass beachings of beaked whales have also been recorded after naval sonar operations; scientists theorize these incidents occur when the animals try to flee the noise, or become confused. And a 2002 study found that killer whales suffered hearing loss and had trouble communicating with one another due to boat noise.

However, the Arctic has remained largely noise-free until now.

This month, Shell plans to drill exploratory well and conduct seismic testing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska—a very loud endeavor. Seismic survey guns shoot compressed air that send acoustic energy through the water and into the Earth’s crust; this is repeated about every 10 seconds for hours at a time.

Shell is just the tip of the iceberg. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced future lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which means more development and more noise.

While environmental groups have tried to halt the drilling, Shell needs only one, final federal permit before it can begin. It looks like the Arctic is about to get a bit louder.

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