Why do myths and misinformation drown information, facts and science?

A guest post by John Hughes of The Norwood Resource:

Why do myths and misinformation drown information, facts and science in the seismic surveys and marine life debate?

The public deserves an open, transparent and honest debate on the issue of seismic surveys and marine life and the unfortunate issue of cetacean strandings.  However, possibly as a result of the major “vacuum” left in this subject area by the offshore petroleum industry, regulator and scientific community, the “green” activist groups like Greenpeace NZ feel free to mislead the public in pursuit of their objectives.  But what are their objectives, when they so blatantly ignore information, facts and science and instead peddle myths and misinformation?  Before providing a possible answer to that question, let’s have a look at some of the outrageous claims made by organisations such as Greenpeace NZ and their supporters:

  1. The constant “noise” from Greenpeace NZ and its supporters is “eloquently” represented in the extremely misleading opinion piece published in the Otago Daily Times on 23 January 2015 (http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/330803/oil-search-puts-dolphins-risk#comment-67018) entitled “Oil search puts dolphins at risk”. There is very little, if any, valid evidence amongst the emotive but very inaccurate terms used by Ms Penwarden (and Greenpeace). For example:
  2. The article says Ms Penwarden “links seismic testing for oil and gas with serious harm to whales and dolphins”. How can this be so if no credible documented cases of harm to cetaceans exist in over 40 years of seismic surveying (note the correct term “surveying”) using compressed air as the seismic source?;
  3. Her description of seismic acquisition is so unrepresentative, using terms such as “detonators” and “blasting,” that are surely meant to mislead a caring and giving community. “Velcro” has done a good job of presenting a factual description of seismic surveying in an online comment rebutting her article so I will not repeat what he/she says.  However, I’d like to add that Ms Penwarden’s statement that seismic arrays “reach about 260 decibels (dB) on a logarithmic scale on which it is known that anything above 170 dB disturbs marine organisms.” is incorrect.  Firstly, she has used a theoretical value (of 260dB) for the sound level of a seismic array.  This would only be achieved if all the 20-30 elements (compressed air cylinders, commonly called “airguns”) in the, say, 10m x 15m array occupied the same location.  This is clearly impossible!  The actual decibel level within 1m of any part of the array would be between 220 and 240dB, depending on the type of array.  Due to attenuation with distance, there would be NO sound levels received from the array that are greater than 240dB.  Secondly, given sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins vocalise at 236dB and 225dB respectively (a lot more than 170dB), how can Ms Penwarden claim they would be disturbed, letalone “seriously harmed” as mentioned elsewhere in her opinion piece?  After all, these cetaceans (or others in their pod) would receive these sounds at close to their emitted levels whereas any received levels from the seismic array would be lower than their own vocalisations;
  4. As a matter of interest, sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins use their vocalisations (clicks) to echo locate – just like the furry bats mentioned by Ms Penwarden. One is left to consider why she did not use this analogy – perhaps she is aware that sperm whale and dolphin vocalisations are at similar levels to seismic pulses?  See figures 1 and 2 in the linked article, which discusses whether seismic surveys prevent cetaceans from communicating.  It is obvious that sperm whales and dolphins continue to vocalise during seismic operations.  Why else would Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) be required by some regulators? (http://thenorwoodresource.org.au/2013/10/26/do-seismic-survey-sounds-prevent-cetaceans-from-communicating/);
  5. She perpetuates distorted claims that the mass stranding of the melon headed whales in Madagascar was caused by a seismic survey. The Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP) concluded that they “systematically excluded or deemed highly unlikely nearly all potential reasons for the animals leaving their typical pelagic habitat and entering the Loza Lagoon (an extremely atypical area for this species). This included the use of seismic airguns in an offshore seismic survey several days after the whales were already in the lagoon system, which was originally speculated to have played some role but in the view of the ISRP clearly did not.”  Surely this says the ISRP concluded the seismic survey “CLEARLY DID NOT” cause the stranding, even in Ms Penwarden’s language!;
  6. She further strongly implies the 100-tonne blue whale washed up on Tapuae Beach in Taranaki was caused by a seismic survey. This is inconceivable given the levels at which blue whales vocalise (188dB – which would be equivalent to the received levels less than 500m from a seismic source).  Furthermore, extensive and detailed monitoring carried out in 2003 in South Australia (http://petroleum.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/27149/epp32report_bluewhales.pdf) showed that blue whales are relatively unaffected by seismic surveys.  This is not surprising given true blue whales spend their summer months in Antarctic Waters where the sounds from calving/cracking/colliding icebergs have similar levels, frequencies and periodicities to seismic sounds. (http://thenorwoodresource.org.au/2013/10/18/the-antarctic-waters-are-certainly-not-quiet-and-yet-many-whale-species-feed-there-throughout-the-summer-months/);
  7. Finally, she and Greenpeace claim that the unfortunate stranding of 3 Gray’s beaked whales on Whatipu Beach near Auckland in January was caused by a seismic survey, which I understand was 200km away. Given that strandings in NZ are very common and there is NO correlation between stranding events and seismic surveys, why are they ignoring the readily observable facts?  How do they explain strandings that occurred in the absence of seismic surveys, either before seismic surveys were invented or in seasons when seismic surveys did not occur?

Prior to this, during late 2014, the campaign waged by Greenpeace NZ was at best hysterically misinformed and, at worst, deliberate deception.  Greenpeace’s claims about the impacts of seismic surveys were and still are, so wildly incorrect, it surely leads most thinking people to conclude the latter (ie that they are perpetrating deliberate deception in the pursuit of donor funds).

Let’s have a brief look at some of their more outrageous claims:

  1. Greenpeace claim: “These blasts are nearly as loud as the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima“.  This is surely a deception of the most serious form as it ignores the facts and science.  As can be seen in an article already published on the TNR website, drawn from readily available information, comparing seismic sounds with typical sounds in water (and air), a typical seismic source is approximately 230dB whereas an atomic explosion is 248dB in air BUT 310dB in water.  Thus, an atomic explosion such as Hiroshima, is more than 8192 times louder than a typical seismic pulse. This is very different from Greenpeace NZ’s claim that seismic pulses are “nearly as loud” as atomic explosions.  Furthermore, seismic sounds are no different from many common natural sounds in the ocean, including humpback breaching and the sound of calving/colliding icebergs.
  2. Greenpeace claim: “…even if it were dramatically quieter, the sound alone would be enough to kill a human“.  This is also totally false!  A human has never been killed by the sound from a seismic survey.  Humans work, relax and sleep on seismic vessels while the seismic source is activated.  If a sound as loud as the Hiroshima nuclear bomb occurred every 10 seconds near the seismic vessel surely humans could not withstand such noise impacts, letalone work, relax and sleep.
  3. Greenpeace claim: “…whales and dolphins can’t hear one another or find food and in extreme cases, it could lead to strandings and death.” Again, this is totally false.  In over 40 years of using compressed air to generate seismic survey pulses there are no credible examples of whales and dolphins stranding or being killed.  However, this is not enough evidence for Greenpeace – they still prefer to believe it “could” happen, even if it has not.  Similarly, it is inconceivable that whales and dolphins cannot hear one another in the presence of seismic surveys as i) those species that do vocalise (eg sperm whales, dolphins, blue whales) are generally identifiable on passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) systems run during seismic surveys and; ii) many species spend the summer months in very noisy soundscapes, such as the Antarctic waters that, due to calving/colliding icebergs, have similar sound frequencies, periodicities and levels to seismic surveys.  Furthermore, species such as sperm whales use vocalisations (clicks) as loud as 235dB in their foraging for prey.  Thus, how can seismic survey sounds significantly lower than this sound level at the location of the animals (and their prey) prevent them from feeding?  For example, at just 128m from a 230dB source the received level would be 188dB, significantly lower than the 235dB at which sperm whales vocalise.
  4. Finally, after some obvious hesitation, as presumably even their scientific advisers could not possibly suggest there was a link, they finally asked the question on their Facebook page if seismic surveying contributed to the very unfortunate stranding of over 140 pilot whales at Farewell Spit: https://www.facebook.com/greenpeace.nz/photos/a.417987320774.213959.11870725774/10153088845845775/?type=1&theater

In their response to some critical comments about their credibility, Greenpeace responded saying “We’re not saying that seismic testing caused the stranding but we are saying there is evidence that it could be harmful to whales and dolphins – and more importantly that there has been no research done by the Govt to determine whether or not that is the case.

Again, this demonstrates how Greenpeace misleads the public.  The facts tell us that there have been NO credible cases of adverse impacts on whales and dolphins from the sound of seismic surveys in over 4 decades of seismic surveying using compressed air, and the science explains why this is so.  Thus, the so called claims by Greenpeace that seismic surveys ‘could’ harm whales and dolphins must surely be highly selective and ignore a 40 year track record plus the facts and science.

In summary, organisations like Greenpeace NZ surely have a responsibility to ensure that their claims are factually based and verifiable.  “Truth in campaigning” should apply equally to lobby groups in the same way as “truth in advertising/reporting” applies to businesses.  Unfortunately, at best, these lobby groups are either displaying a high level of ignorance or, at worse, they have deliberately chosen not to display the same high level of honesty that they themselves demand from others.

Thus, in answer to the question posed at this beginning of this article: “why are organisations drowning information, facts and science with myths and misinformation?”  It is as simple as the blatant pursuit of the donor dollar!

John Hughes
The Norwood Resource

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