What is Seismic Testing?

Sizing up the dangers of oil exploration along the East Coast

The government has paved the way for oil exploration just off the coast of this perfect Outer Banks sandbar. Photo: Ellis

The government has paved the way for oil exploration just off the coast of this perfect Outer Banks sandbar. Photo: Ellis

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, everyone is painfully aware of the dangers of drilling into the ocean floor to extract oil. But what many people don't realize is that just looking for oil can put underwater ecosystems at risk due to a process known as seismic testing.

Seismic testing is a method of searching for oil and gas reserves using blasts of sound. These blasts are created using powerful airguns and are able to penetrate the ocean floor, relaying data about what lies beneath to the surface. Back in July, the federal government approved a proposal to open up a huge area off the East Coast for seismic testing, causing outrage in environmental circles.

Local Outer Banks surfer and environmental activist Brady Bradshaw recalls hearing an Exxon representative describe seismic testing as, "Basically taking a sonogram of the ocean, just testing to see what's down there."

"But that's a romantic image," says Bradshaw. "The Atlantic Continental Shelf is 500 feet deep on average. The oil source at the Deepwater Horizon site was more than six miles beneath the ocean floor. So these sound waves must be powerful enough to travel through 500 feet of water, then six miles of rock, then return to the seismic testing ship. Exxon might not think that there's anything living in that first 500 feet of water, but, of course, there is."

The Surfrider Foundation has condemned the testing, stating in a release that "Seismic airgun testing will cause catastrophic impacts to the marine ecosystem, including injury or death to hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins. It will also set the stage for offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast, a dirty and dangerous practice that threatens the health of our oceans and coastal communities."

A map of the proposed testing area.

A map of the proposed testing area.

Marine mammal beaching events in Peru and Madagascar are suspected to be caused by seismic testing in those areas. But experts believe the consequences of seismic testing extend beyond beaching events, affecting migration, communication, population density, breeding rates, even sperm and egg production in species examined after exposure.

After hearing the proposal to run seismic tests just off the coast of his home breaks, Bradshaw created the non-profit organization called Ocean Defense.

"Ocean Defense is not only about education, but about direct action," Bradshaw explains. "Stopping the ships, equipment, and movement. Finding where they are making it, where they coordinate the testing, and disrupting the process as much as possible. Our goal is to cost them as much time, money, and headaches as we can. The more we can delay seismic testing, the more time there is for the legal process to unfold. What's most important is people showing they won't tolerate being walked on by these corporations."

If you're interested in learning more about seismic testing, or would like to voice your concerns, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will be hosting public meetings in regions with pending oil exploration activities, including the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Alaska. Those unable to attend can also submit comments here.