Norway's sneaky seismic attack on the Arctic

Seismic testing at sea
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace
Seismic sensors are dragged behind survey ships to map the sea floor
Image caption: 
Seismic sensors are dragged behind survey ships to map the sea floor

The Esperanza has been in the
Arctic near Svalbard, 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

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 soundwaves 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. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima
and Nagasaki reached 248 dB, and the noise of a jet taking off is around 165dB. A sound wave of 202 dB would kill a human.

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 which Norway has. 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 the 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 Norwegian political parties back
the existing agreement that prohibits petroleum activities in ice covered

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.

Follow this story on Twitter @gp_espy.

Sune Scheller is an Arctic campaigner currently on board the

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