Seismic acquisition and its impact on marine life: a review and ethical aspects



There is a growing interest in understanding the effect of human-caused sounds such as ships, sonars and seismic air guns on the marine life. Fish and marine mammals use sound to communicate, sense the environment and find food. Marine mammals sense the environment by listening to sounds from natural sources, for example, surf noise, which can indicate presence and direction of a shoreline, or noise from an ice edge. Toothed and sperm whales use echo sounds to sense presence and location of objects, such as prey. Therefore, if a human-caused sound is within the animals’ auditory range, it might affect marine life in a way that could potentially prevent the animals from hearing important sounds, or cause the animals to alter their behavior.

We have a responsibility to protect the marine species against our human-induced noise. Indeed, this perceived responsibility is reflected in current concerns expressed through major campaigns for environmental organizations such as Oceana and Greenpeace, as well as through the increased regulations and guidelines during the planning phase and eventual sonar and seismic activity. In Norway, this concern has turned into an important question related to the oil industry, since environmental organizations use seismic acquisition and its impact on sea life as one of the largest anchor points towards the industry. However, ambiguity in science together with different ethical values, interests, and engagements has led to a carousel of discussions among experts on the issue and where the boundary defining what is right and wrong should be set.

As a marine geophysicist studying climate change, I have a special moral responsibility and curiosity about the effects that geophysical methods (e.g. seismic) can have on marine life. Throughout studies and work, I have participated on ~10 seismic acquisition cruises in arctic waters, almost all of them among whales and large schools of fish, without knowing much about the impact the operations can cause and potential mitigation procedures we apply to mitigate interference. Here, I will discuss the ethical challenges arisen by seismic airgun shooting.


Figure: Illustrative animation picture from: 

This relatively long essay is written by me, Malin, as a part of the course “Philosophy of Science and Ethics” at UiT.  The public interest for the issue made me wanting to share it with you.  Please do not hesitate to let me know (in the comment field below) if there is any comments or concerns regarding the text. 

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Getting Up Close and Personal

I have to admit I am a geeky geologist. I love walking in the mountains, looking at outcrops and imagining how they formed, or how many dinosaurs could have potentially walked there. I wanted to start climbing, perhaps with a slightly different motivation than most people. Malin for example (as most climbers I guess) has the goal of becoming a better climber, she fantasizes about the difficult routes she wants to be able to climb by the end of summer. Her motivation is becoming a stronger, better climber. When I mentioned what my motivation for learning to climb was, I was met with raised eyebrows and suddenly had an idea for a new post.

My strongest motivation for climbing is that it provides another excellent possibility of getting really ‘up close and personal’ to outcropping rocks. I want to climb at different locations and rock-types, and see and experience the difference. I am serious. It might be possible to compare it with a biologist studying an animal from photos vs. actually spending time with the animal? Well, maybe I sound crazy now, and maybe my motivation will change with time, who knows.


Kate and Ole-Mattis surveying the route (Photo: Malin)

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Eventyrøya Senja

Aside from the attractions on Senja such as Senjatrollet (the world’s largest troll) and the traditional fishing communities (as well as a Halibut museum), the geology is also a reason to visit Senja. The northern and western coasts face out to open ocean and mountains plunge near vertically into the sea. According to some tourism websites, almost every aspect of Norwegian scenery and nature can be found on the island.

We have covered quite a lot on this blog about the Caledonian Mountain Building episode which is responsible for Scandinavian mountains in general, and talked about some of the rock types. A general rock ‘family’ that gets mentioned quite a bit are metamorphic rocks. Metamorphic rocks can form as either igneous or sedimentary rocks are altered due to either pressure (as rocks are buried in the crust) temperature (the deeper towards the mantle a rock is, the higher the temperature) or chemical alterations (i.e. when water passes through a rock chemicals in the water can interact with chemicals in the rock changing the mineral structure).


Dragons Teeth (Ersfjorden, Senja) in Winter. Photo: Private, taken by Malin


Dragons Teeth (Ersfjorden, Senja) Summer. Photo: Private, taken by Kate

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Sastrugi and snow waves

Most of you have probably noticed how the wind is capable to shape and polish snow surfaces, make fascinating structures, often similar to ripples and sand dunes. Fascinating to look at, but a hustle to ski on. I guess many of you are also very capable to point out the latest wind-direction based on the shape of the structures. However, some of these structures are very complex and it can be difficult. Examples are sastrugi versus regular snow waves, they are very different features formed by wind blowing on top of snow.  In this blog post we will touch a little bit into this, how they form in relation to wind direction, and how they are different from each other’s, and from ripples and dunes in sand.

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Imposing dolomite marble cliffs also called “Norwegian Snow” on Storfjellet in Breivikeidet (Troms, Norway)

Norwegian version below.

Saturday, two friends (Morgan and Sten-Andreas (also a geologist)) and I went ski touring on Storfjellet in Breivikeidet, Troms. The days are so much longer now, and even though we had bit of an alpine start, we walked in sun most of the time. Nice to feel that the sun is starting to warm again after a couple of months of polar-nights.


Me and Morgan studying a little outcrop or block of rock on or way up the mountain, it got our attention because of the rare color. Turned out to be the first clue of what later to come! Picture: Sten-Andreas Gundvåg

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