How Seismic Blasting Harms Marine Animals

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Dec. 16 2021, Published 11:21 a.m. ET

Seismic Blasting
Source: Getty Images

There are a lot of horrible things that humans do to the beautiful natural world — and seismic blasting is definitely towards the top of the list.

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This underwater process, conducted as part of seismic surveys by the fossil fuel industry, is extremely harmful to marine animals and the environment. But how exactly does it work? Keep reading for an explainer on seismic blasting.

Seismic Blasting
Source: Getty Images

Turkish drilling vessel "Fatih" sails up the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea on May 29, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey.

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What is seismic blasting? The fossil fuel industry’s seismic surveys are harmful.

In order to find gas and oil buried beneath the ocean, employees from the fossil fuel industry conduct seismic surveys or seismic testing underwater. To do so, they employ seismic blasting: blowing extremely loud airguns onto the ocean floor every 10 seconds, sometimes for weeks in a row; they then use tubes to measure the blasts’ echoes, which helps them figure out where oil and gas are located, as explained by the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to Oceana, the sounds made by seismic blasting are one of the loudest sounds in the ocean — so loud, in fact, that they can travel 2,500 miles through water.

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Why is seismic blasting bad? Here’s how it hurts marine animals.

Just like how noise pollution harms humans and animals on land, the sounds made by seismic blasting disrupt animals who live in the ocean in many ways.

For one thing, marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, and porpoises communicate with each other via sounds in the ocean, known as sonar or echolocation. These animals rely on sonar to communicate with each other about food, predators, mating, and more, as per Oceana. When seismic airguns blast through the ocean, the loud noises disturb sonar communication between animals; this gets in the way of dolphins, whales, and porpoises finding food, avoiding predators, finding mating partners, and more.

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Many dolphin and whale species are vulnerable and endangered around the world, and seismic blasting only puts these animals at a higher risk of going extinct.

And when it comes to smaller animals, seismic blasting can be fatal. The loud noises can: cause fish to go deaf (which can get in the way of their own communication); harm the immune systems of shellfish; straight up kill zooplankton (which many marine animals rely on for food); throw off invertebrates, rendering them more susceptible to being eaten by predators; and more, as noted by the NRDC and The New York Times.

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Is seismic blasting legal?

With all the harm seismic blasting causes, how on earth are seismic surveys still legal? In short, the process helps make the fossil fuel industry a lot of money. The oil and gas industry is known for making huge donations to political campaigns; this can prompt politicians to make laws protecting the industry. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break — but many conservationists are trying to do so.

In October 2020, the U.S. government finally listened to environmentalists, and agreed to put an end to seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. As of Nov. 30, 2020, all U.S. seismic survey permits for the Atlantic Ocean expired, and the government stopped renewing and issuing seismic blasting permits in the Atlantic.

This news was a huge win for the ocean, but it’s not enough. To truly protect marine animals, we need every country to pass similar laws outlawing seismic blasting — and many other harmful underwater practices, from offshore drilling to dumping toxic waste.

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