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Federal regulators missing the big picture in Alaska's Arctic seas

At the Department of Interior’s recent listening session in Anchorage, it became apparent from what I heard in the meeting that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management does not have, is not asking for, and perhaps does not want to discuss the total scope of the combined exploration coming this summer to the Arctic Ocean, much less ultimate development effects across the region.

Multiple huge offshore seismic explorations are staging now for massive activity in several regions of the American Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  And not only in American waters.  Russian and Canadian seismic explorations are being simultaneously planned on both sides of the borders, as well as extensive operations across international waters beyond.  So we have a huge belt of seismic explorative activities encompassing three nations, and no cumulative studies or cumulative environmental assessments preceding them.

To understand the magnitude of the development you must first look at the seismic exploration itself.  An array of powerful “air guns” is used to create gigantic blasts on the sea floor. These blasts send impulse waves deep into the sea floor, large enough to bounce back and indicate hydrocarbon zones deep underground.

If you have ever been in a swimming pool you may notice that you can hear sharp noises, like metal on metal or even someone snapping their fingers underwater, very clearly.  That is because water carries that type of sound very well.  If the snap of a finger carries so well, try to image huge seismic pulses large enough to penetrate thousands of feet into the ground.  Those types of impulses would knock a whale senseless if close enough, and would certainly deflect them from long distances.  This type of disturbance during migration has been documented in the past. This may be the year of mass beaching of various marine mammal species.

Bowhead whales, gray whales, beluga, orcas and porpoises all use sonar to migrate and feed from Russian waters, through Alaska and through Canada.  Each species has specific migration routes that are occurring in a changing ocean ice environment.  In each region this summer there will be massive seismic exploration, each project deflecting animals from the area – possibly reversing migration routes or deflecting stocks from feeding locations as seismic occurs in all regions this summer.

But there are no studies, no data and no understanding of the effects that will occur from the combined development.  While the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking public comment right now on an EIS on the effects of oil and gas activities in the Arctic Ocean, that process is not done yet and also did not address the cumulative effects across the broad region by addressing any seismic surveys or drilling that may take place in Russian, Canadian or international waters.

People in the villages of the North Slope of Alaska do not realize the magnitude of exploration in so many ranges of the Chukchi and Beaufort.  Hundreds and hundreds of community meetings with industry and agencies have resulted in disillusionment with the whole process.  From Russian Chukchi seismic exploration to Alaskan Chukchi and Beaufort exploration through to Canadian Beaufort seismic exploration, a giant level of seismic, thunderous pulses are going to occur in nearly all ranges of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean.

BOEM does not require cumulative (combined, real) impacts from the various seismic activities, not only in Alaskan waters but internationally, and until they do the current permitting process is flawed and incomplete.

For this level of development better, more inclusive planning is necessary to protect the Arctic Ocean and the marine mammals that migrate through it.

Daniel Lum lives in Fairbanks. He operated a wildlife tour company in Barrow and is a graduate of Ilisagvik College. His first book, a photo-narrative about the sandy spit of land known as Point Barrow, titled "Nuvuk, the Northernmost," will be released in June through the University of Alaska and University of Chicago presses.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.