Seismic ocean blasting experiment along East Coast may pose threat to marine ecology


Sound blasting may soon begin on the East Coast of the United States, in a study of the ocean floor.  Many environmentalists are up in arms over the experiments, claiming the study will be hazardous to wildlife.  

The experiments are managed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the National Science Foundation and Columbia University.

Seismic guns will create sonic blasts between 236 and 265 decibels (dB). This is far above the loudest sound which can be measured in air. A loud rock concert is roughly 125 decibels, and pain begins about 125 dB, about as intense as a pneumatic drill at four feet. A jet engine, throttling 100 feet away, comes in about 140dB, while a blast from a 12 gauge shotgun rings the ears of a person firing the weapon with 165 dB of sound.

A total of 36 of these guns will fire once every 20 to 24 seconds, 24 hours a day, for the term of each half of the study. The first part of the experiments will take place between August and September 2014, and will be completed between April and August 2015.

Kongsberg EM 122 multibeam echosounders will also be operated in conjunction with the seismic guns. These devices produce high-frequency sounds between 10.5 and 13 kilohertz, in the upper-to mid part of the human hearing spectrum. In 2008, oil giant  Exxon was using a similar device off the coast of Madagascar, when around 100 melon-headed whales ground themselves on the shore. A scientific review by an independent panel determined the echosounder was the cause of the mass cetacean suicide.

The area subjected to the seismic experiments is between 130 and 350 nautical miles from the east coast of the United States. Another goal of this research is to determine the limits of the North American continental plate.

The Seismic experiments are designed to investigate the geology behind underwater landslides. Such research could be valuable in understanding the formation of tsunamis, which can cause massive devastation to human populations.

Clean Ocean Action, an environmental conservation group, wrote an open letter to Jolie Harrison of the National Marine Fisheries Service, opposing the planned operations.

"Clean Ocean Action urges denial of the NMFS IHA on the grounds that a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) should be completed and the potential impacts to marine mammals are incompatible with the goals, mandates, and prohibitions of the [Marine Mammal Protection Act]" the group wrote in the letter.

The environmental group is calling on the government agency to carry out a full environmental impact study (EIS), outlining both the scientific need, and the environmental impact, of the proposed program. This would then be subject to public review and scrutiny.

Marine biologists believe the extreme sounds can play havoc with communications between whales.

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