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Eco-warrior trashes seismic experiment

Explosive geological studies on a Canadian island disrupted by activist.

Research on Denny Island has been disrupted by an environmental activist. Credit: Shearwater Resort & Marina

Researchers working in certain fields are accustomed to the dangers of lurking bears, moose or lions. But a team of geophysicists studying granite formations on an isolated Canadian island in British Columbia faced a different threat last week: an environmental activist who sabotaged their seismic studies.

On 14 July, a saboteur broke into a buried explosive charge — designed to set off tremors that give information about the underlying rock to a depth of 50 kilometres — and cut the detonation cord. Later that day, eco-activist Ingmar Lee claimed responsibility for the act on the Internet, and gave television interviews threatening more damage at the Denny Island site, about 500 kilometres north of Vancouver. As researchers repaired the charge to complete the earth-probing experiment, which involves a total of 18 explosive pipes, Lee taunted them.

"He would come out of the woods, yell threats, and disappear," says John Hole, a geophysicist from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, and one of the lead investigators of the project. "We weren't sure what he was going to do next." Lee denies shouting at or harassing the scientists.

Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assisted the research team after the break-in, Hole says they then declined to provide protection. After that, local residents rallied to guard the scientists so that they could complete repairs and set off the targeted charge late on the night of 16 July.

"There was concern there would be violence or problems, so we went out there in a few cars," says Craig Widsten, owner of a local fishing lodge. The Denny Island airport was also shut for a time by the incident, as the 15-metre-deep charge hole was in a gravel pit near the end of runway.

Over the following two days, the team were able to set off the remainder of the charges at 15 other sites in a line moving inland through a river valley. Seismic waves triggered by the controlled explosions could then be picked up by seismometers, allowing the researchers to describe the granite formations — or batholiths — that created the mountains along the British Columbia coast.

Old battleground

Hole and his team are part of the Batholiths Continental Dynamics Project, a collaboration of researchers from Canadian and US universities funded by agencies of the respective governments. The aim of the seismic studies on Denny Island are to define the formation, growth and recycling of Earth's crust in that area — events that happened in the late Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. The island itself is part of a huge batholith.

Some local environmentalists have expressed concern that the studies might be looking for oil or gas, but the seismic tests have nothing to do with fossil-fuel exploration, say researchers, noting that petroleum is never found in granite. But some protesters have ignored these denials, and in the past have waged long-running political battles against such studies (see 'Airgun ban halts seismic tests').

On 17 July, the police charged Lee with one count of wilful mischief endangering life when he disrupted the seismic study on Denny Island. A court in the nearby community of Bella Bella is to order him to appear.

A long-time forest-protection campaigner who claims to have planted more than 1 million trees, Lee said he was concerned the explosions — which would create some isolated ground shuddering — would disrupt sandhill cranes nesting in the vicinity of the experiments and cause distress to whales in the waters surrounding the island.

"This is a very specialized wilderness area," Lee said in an interview with Nature. "I was concerned for the sandhill cranes and salmon. I consider this non-violent civil disobedience."

Despite many previous environmental protests, such as tree-sitting, Lee has never been convicted of a criminal offence, the police say.


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From Nature 1946: The Coast Range Batholith, British Columbia

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Batholiths Continental Dynamics Project

Ingmar Lee's website

Lee's announcement

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Dalton, R. Eco-warrior trashes seismic experiment. Nature (2009).

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