High-powered seismic air guns could soon be vastly increasing the submarine noise levels off the Atlantic coast of the United States, potentially harming marine life. The air guns are used to create powerful sound waves that move through the water column and into the sea floor where they become seismic waves that help illuminate geological structures that could contain petroleum reservoirs.

Last week the Obama administration released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for oil and gas exploration on the East Coast that could open the door to permits being for seismic air gun surveys from Florida to New Jersey just months from now.

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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) jumped on the EIS, calling it “a capitulation to the forces of drill-baby-drill.”

“Airgun exploration is not only a gateway drug to offshore drilling but, as the scientific community has recognized, a major assault on the oceans in itself,” wrote NRDC's Michael Jasny just hours after the EIS was released.

“Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end. Now imagine that you depend on your hearing to feed, mate, communicate, and do just about everything else necessary for survival.” That, he said, is what wildlife will have to deal with when the air guns start blasting.

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But has that really been the case in the Gulf of Mexico, where the exploration technique has been employed for many years?

“There really hasn't been a lot of data,” said oceanographer Douglas Nowacek of the Duke University Marine Lab. “The government is (now) where it should have been before it started in the Gulf of Mexico. People were not able to participate in the Gulf of Mexico.”

He and his colleagues have studied the effects on the ability of sperm whales to hunt at depth and found the whales were changing some of their hunting echolocation sounds in response to the air gun sounds. Other research has found everything from little response by animals, to changes in feeding behaviors and even displacement of commercial fish, Nowacek said.

NOAA recently produced ocean noise maps to better understand noise in the oceans caused by ships and other human activities. This Gulf of Mexico map shows seismic air gun noise.NOAA

“It's a mixed bag for sure,” said Nowacek. For whales there is direct a danger if the marnine mammals stray too close to the air guns. Currently the only way that danger is supposedly mitigated is by posting lookouts, Nowacek said. But how do you keep an eye out for whales when it's dark, cloudy of blowing 30 knots? he asked.

Further away from the source, the air gun blasts, which can go on for hours, run the danger of causing damage to whales in the same way that humans get very selective hearing loss working around some machines all day, day after day.

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There is also potential damage to animal behavior, Nowacek said. That includes feeding, or raising young. Either one can have big impacts on whether animals survive or reproduce successfully.

“There have not been been these sorts of surveys off the East Coast since the 1980s,” said Jolie Harrison of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Protected Resources. And the agency is doing what it can to make sure marine life will be protected, she said.

“People fought very hard in the 1980s to promote a character of the Atlantic Seaboard,” said Leila Hatch, who has worked on ocean noise at NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. “This is a change from that. None of us would argue that we are making decisions under perfect conditions. Our job is to take a precautionary stance.”