The Anchorage Daily News ran a great, detailed piece on the expansion of offshore oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north and west of Alaska. It’s well worth reading in full. The nut of the story is that Shell Oil, which has conducted seismic surveys in the northerns seas for the past few years, is gearing up to drill their first new exploratory well in over a decade. If they find the oil they expect to, further seismic exploration and drilling is likely to follow in these remote waters, home to many species of whales. Bowhead whales are especially sensitive to noise, especially cow-calf pairs, and have been found to give seismic surveys a wide berth.
Oil companies have been doing extensive research into the seasonal distributions of whales (especially belugas and bowheads), and have agreed to suspend operations in late August to accommodate the Alaskan natives traditional bowhead hunting season. Meanwhile, Chris Clark, the Bioacoustics Research Program director at Cornell says, “There are unanswered science questions. It’s not clear what happens if a whale hears 1,000 of the explosions from air guns, or where it will go if an area is saturated with the sound. In addition, scientists are only beginning to study the effects of the sound on fish and other animals that make up the whole ecosystem.”