The Esperanza has been in Svalbard, in the Arctic, for a few weeks now and we recently became aware of something urgent and disturbing. A seismic company called Dolphin Geophysical, commissioned by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, has begun seismic mapping in the far north of the Barents Sea.
Seismic mapping is the very first step of oil exploration. Before the oil rigs even arrive, before the drills go in the seabed, companies must first determine where to find the precious pockets of oil. So, right now, we're en route to intercept a vessel conducting these tests to expose this sneak attack on the Arctic by the Norwegian state.
Seismic tests are done from a ship at the surface. An air gun shoots low-frequency sound pulses that penetrate the seafloor and the reflected sound waves are then recorded by sensors dragged on long cables after the ship. The data collected is used to map the seafloor so that oil companies can look for positions where they can drill for oil.
These air blasts can be as loud as 260 dB. As a comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached 248 dB. A sound wave of 202 dB would kill a human and the noise a jet taking off is around 165dB.
Sound travels extremely well under water and the noises from seismic vessels have been recorded thousands of kilometres away. Marine mammals depend on sounds to navigate and feed and they are incredibly vulnerable to these loud noises. The air gun shots are issued with an interval of less than a minute – sometimes over weeks or months – and they mean that animals like whales and dolphins are unable to hear one another or find food. In extreme cases, it could cause physical damage or severe disorientation that can lead to strandings and death.
Now, you would think that a country like Norway would have regulations in place to protect marine mammals from seismic mapping. After all, Norway likes to point out that when it comes to oil exploration and production they are the best of the best. The elite. But that is simply not true. There are no regulations in place, no guidelines to protect marine mammals in this vulnerable area.
Other Arctic countries like Greenland, the US and Canada, however, do have some regulations in place that require the air blasts to stop if marine mammals are spotted within a certain distance of the ship. Of course, this is still a long way off from actually preventing harm to marine animals, but at least it's a better environmental standard than what Norway can present. Norway is once again falling short of its promise of applying only the best environmental standards.
The area designated for the mapping this summer stretches from south of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard to the east of the islands close to Russian Barents Sea. It goes as far as 80° North, an area that is covered by sea ice during the winter months and even now, in the middle of August, has parts covered by ice. Teeming with wildlife like polar bears, whales, walruses and seals, an oil spill here would be an absolute catastrophe.
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate says that it will neither publish nor sell the results of this seismic testing work. On top of that, Norway has regulations in place that don’t allow oil drilling this far north and ice covered waters. Yet, the fact that the tests are being conducted at all indicates a desire to begin oil drilling up here, too. It's step in the wrong direction, in so many ways. Fortunately, the news around the seismic testing has caused more than just raised eyebrows from both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Both political parties back the existing agreement that prohibits petroleum activities in ice covered waters.
The Esperanza will follow the vessel for a few days, documenting and exposing the seismic tests being carried out. Norway is party to the OSPAR Convention, which obliges parties to adopt the best available technology and best environmental practice. Not having any regulation for the protection of marine mammals in relation to seismic testing puts Norway at direct odds with the OSPAR convention and in potential breach of international law.
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Sune Scheller is an Arctic campaigner on board the Esperanza.