Oil exploration in Arctic waters brings noise to whales' domain
Source: Renee Schoof, Anchorage Daily News
WASHINGTON -- As the Arctic Ocean's ice cover declines in summer and oil companies move in with ships, drilling equipment and seismic surveys, what used to be a mostly very quiet home for whales and other marine animals is getting a lot louder.
Next month will mark a new stage in oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska, when Shell returns to the Alaska Arctic to drill exploratory wells. If it's successful, this could be the beginning of a new boom.
Scientists are asking how whales and other marine animals will react to the sound. The overall level of man-made underwater noise in the Arctic is increasing, not only from oil and gas development but also from shipping and soon from commercial fishing and tourism vessels. Whales, dolphins, walruses and seals all rely on sound in the water. Bowhead whales, for example, are adept at using their voices to navigate in complete darkness through ice.
"They can live to 200, and they're adapted to a world of extreme quiet under the frozen ocean, broken at times by extremely loud tectonic crashes of giant blocks of ice," said Christopher Clark, the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University.
"An oil spill may be more dramatic in terms of actually exposing animals to toxic substances," added John Hildebrand, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, "but the stress that may come from the increased noise is something that we should be concerned about."
The oil company is keenly aware of the potential disturbance below the surface.
"The sound we're putting in the water is something we're watching very closely," because it could directly impact marine mammals and communities that rely on subsistence hunts, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith in Anchorage. The sound from seismic surveys "is something that's at the top of our list for mitigating our impact," he said.
The company has had acoustic recorders in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for several months at a time since 2006 to understand marine mammals' behavior, how they respond to the sound Shell puts into the water and also how they respond to climate change and ship traffic sounds.
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