Updated on July 5 at 2:10 p.m. ET
Last night, to celebrate the fourth of July, the air over the U.S. filled with fireworks. The noise they created was extremely loud and, mercifully, brief. But imagine having to listen to even louder explosions once every ten seconds, for days or weeks on end. Starting this fall, that may be the new reality for whales, fish, and other marine life off the eastern seaboard, if the Trump administration’s plans go ahead.
Following the president’s executive order to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is set to permit five companies to begin seismic airgun blasting—an old but controversial technique for detecting reserves of oil and gas. Ships will tow an array of 24 to 36 cannons behind them along with streamers of underwater microphones. The cannons create explosions by releasing pressurized gas, while the microphones detect the echoes of these detonations to pinpoint petroleum deposits beneath the ocean floor.
Each airgun produces up to 180 decibels of noise, making them around 1,000 times louder than nearby fireworks. And each will go off five or six times a minute, for months at a time, from the back of slow-moving ships that crisscross 90,000 kilometres of Atlantic waters from New Jersey to Florida. There is clear evidence that noise of this magnitude kills or perturbs marine life at every scale—from titanic whales to tiny plankton. It “poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life… the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs,” said a group of 75 marine scientists in 2015.