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Inuit concerns stall seismic testing

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Research in Canadian waters halted over fears it could harm wildlife.

Researchers on board the Polarstern have been prevented from carrying out seismic surveys in the Canadian Arctic. Credit: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research

A temporary court injunction has halted plans to study Earth's crust in eastern Canadian Arctic waters. The 8 August decision by the Nunavut Court of Justice bars the RV Polarstern from beginning its research activities, just days before it was set to start, over fears that the cruise could impact wildlife and raise the prospects for oil drilling in the region.

The decision has left the expedition scientists frustrated. Heinrich Miller, deputy-director of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, which operates the vessel, says that the estimated €5-million (US$6.5-million) research cruise had received the necessary permits from the Canadian and Nunavut governments. "We feel that we're being caught in inner Canadian problems," he says.

Scientists on board the Polarstern had planned tests to provide details about Earth's crust and upper mantle and offer insight into the geological history of the ocean basin between Greenland and Canada, which began opening up about 60 million years ago.

The cruise was intended to run seismic tests along six paths in a roughly triangular area of Baffin Bay, bounded by Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Three of the paths extended into the neighbouring Jones and Lancaster Sounds. Scientists would have fired air guns into the water every 10–15 seconds around the clock as they sailed along the routes, using up to 30 submerged seismometers and a 4,500-metre-long hydrophone streamer to record the effects of the impacts on the ocean floor. Running a survey on a roughly 800-kilometre-long line along the coast of Baffin Island would take about 80 hours, says Miller. The injunction "will diminish the science results for the Polarstern cruise", he says.

But Scott Highleyman, international director of the US-based Pew Environment Group's Arctic programme says: "The controversy isn't about science, it is about oil and gas in the Arctic. If it is really about science, the data they want to get has been here for millions of years. What's the rush?"

Sounds of controversy

At the heart of the issue is the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment (ECASE), one of the Polarstern's projects. Jointly run by the government department Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, ECASE will study the hydrocarbon potential of the northern Baffin Bay sedimentary basin. It is part of a five-year, Can$100-million (US$95.4-million) Geo-mapping for Energy and Minerals programme, announced in 2008.

The ECASE project seems to put NRCan in opposition to fellow government agency Parks Canada, which announced in December 2009 that it would undertake a Can$5-million feasibility study for the creation of a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound.

Miller says it is unlikely that the surveys would have pointed to areas of immediate interest to oil companies, but that the data would add to the understanding of whether the region has oil and gas potential. "It uses similar methods, but in a different set up than you would if you were really doing exploration work," he says.

NRCan would not comment on the issue to Nature, owing to the ongoing legal proceedings, but said in a statement on 8 August that it was "committed to the goal of its geo-mapping program, which is to increase our knowledge of the geology of the North".

A group representing Inuit interests in the Baffin region petitioned the court to stop the Polarstern's experiments because, it says, the communities hadn't been adequately consulted. The group was also concerned that the airguns might disturb narwhals, beluga, walrus, seals and polar bears in Lancaster Sound, which serves as an important migratory route and traditional hunting ground.

"In August and September Lancaster Sound is one of the richest marine habitats in the world, with 85% of the world's narwhal coming through," says Highleyman.

Decades of studies have looked at physical, physiological and behavioural effects of seismic surveys on marine life, but debate around them continues. Baleen whales, including bowheads, have been observed to avoid areas close to active seismic vessels, but that response is highly variable among toothed whales such as beluga.

"There is no reported case, absolutely no proven case yet that marine seismic work has actually done harm to marine mammals," says Miller. He adds that the expedition had adopted mitigation measures to minimize the seismic survey's effects on marine mammals, including slowly ramping up the air gun array and employing observers to alert the team to any nearby animals who might be affected.

"We know the science is inconclusive on what kind of damage it can do, but there is an endangered population of bowhead whales that brings their calves through this area at this time, and if they have to divert into less good habitats it can have an effect on their health," says Highleyman.

This is not the first time that seismic tests have been banned in Canadian waters. Projects off the coast of British Columbia were turned down on the basis that they might disturb marine life (see Airgun ban halts seismic tests), and were delayed by environmental lawsuits (see Environmental concerns delay seismic testing) or sabotaged (see Eco-warrior trashes seismic experiment).

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Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research

Oceans North Canada

Statement of Canadian Practice with respect to the Mitigation of Seismic Sound in the Marine Environment

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Hoag, H. Inuit concerns stall seismic testing. Nature (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2010.403

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