The Dangers of Seismic Testing

Feature story - September 11, 2003
The sound energy from seismic testing is potentially damaging to many species of marine life, including whales, dolphins and seals. The ocean is an acoustic environment, not a visual one and marine mammals rely heavily on sound for their survival. Without their heightened sense of hearing, marine mammals cannot find food, avoid predators or communicate with each other.

Seismic testing is an exploration technique used by oil and gas companies to explore the ocean for oil and gas sediments. In order to measure these sediments, large ships fire high-intensity air guns deep into the ocean. The sound energy from these air guns is potentially damaging to many species of marine life, including whales, dolphins and seals.

The blasts from seismic air gun can reach volumes of 260 decibels (anything above 180 decibels is believed to be harmful to marine mammals). The injuries that may be caused by sounds at this level include permanent hearing loss, disorientation, brain hemorrhaging and death.

The ocean is an acoustic environment, not a visual one and marine mammals rely heavily on sound for their survival. Without their heightened sense of hearing, marine mammals cannot find food, avoid predators or communicate with each other.

Because whales have a very slow reproductive process, they are particularly vulnerable to human threats. Continued commercial whaling, entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions kill thousands of whales and other marine mammals each year. Seismic testing should not be allowed to endanger them further.

Currently, seismic testing is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. Greenpeace is asking the U.S. government to take steps to reduce the amount of seismic testing in U.S. waters and to support clean energy alternatives to oil and natural gas, such as wind and solar power.

 Facts about Seismic Testing

  • In the last year, whale deaths believed to be related to noise pollution have occurred off of Baja California, the Canary Islands, and the San Juan Islands.
  • Seismic explosions typically reach 260 decibels but scientists believe marine mammals are injured by volumes higher than 180 decibels.
  • Physical impacts of seismic survey noise on marine mammals are believed to include auditory masking or confusion, temporary hearing loss, brain hemorrhage and even death.
  • The Gulf of Mexico is saturated with oil and gas development. Currently, there are an estimated 4,000 platforms offshore and seismic exploration is expanding into more biologically significant areas.
  • The resident Gulf of Mexico population of sperm whales only numbers 530. There are also 5 other endangered species of great whales that migrate in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In the most recent congressional debate over energy legislation, pro-drilling legislators attempted to include a provision for an offshore seismic inventory of the entire US Outer Continental Shelf which would have required several million air gun blasts in areas inhabited by marine mammals.

Read the Greenpeace report offering data on seismic testing and its impacts on marine life.

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