Environmentalists battle study of N.J. ocean bed

Posted: May 25, 2014

Scientists led by a Rutgers University geologist say the Jersey Shore is a world-class place to study sea level rise, and they plan to bombard a swath of the seabed off Long Beach Island with sound waves for a month this summer to unlock the secrets of what has happened in the past - and what could happen next.

But environmentalists, who might normally support research related to climate change, are aghast at the prospect, saying it might harm whales and other marine mammals, as well as New Jersey's vibrant summer seafood and tourism economy.

They also fear it could open the door to more aggressive seismic testing for oil and natural gas.

This weekend, beachgoers will be witness to the dispute. Critics plan to fly plane-towed banners - STOP RUTGERS OCEAN BLASTING.ORG - #SAVENJMARINELIFE - along the coast from Beach Haven to Sandy Hook.

"New Jerseyans are tenacious about protecting their Jersey Shore - from pollution to Superstorm Sandy," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. "Science doesn't get a pass."

At an event Friday to launch the campaign, organized by Zipf's group, commercial and recreational fisheries advocates, and others, the groups said they had started a petition drive and urged Rutgers president Robert Barchi to stop the project.

Jimmy Lovgren, spokesman for the Fisherman's Dock Cooperative, in Point Pleasant Beach, contended the sound would scare away fish, and kill fish larvae, scallops, and other sea life, conceding, "unfortunately, we don't have a lot of scientific proof."

The scientists say the work will not harm the animals, and valuable data will remain buried if they cannot proceed.

If the expedition takes place, "I predict we're going to see things we have never seen off the coast of New Jersey," said Gregory Mountain, the Rutgers University geologist who is the principal investigator.

The scientists hope to spend about a month aboard a specialized National Science Foundation research vessel, the Marcus G. Langseth, crisscrossing a rectangular area seven by 31 miles across, starting 15 miles southeast of Barnegat Inlet.

While neither light nor radio waves can penetrate water very well, sound does. So at periodic intervals - sometimes just seconds apart, day and night - equipment on the vessel will release a burst of compressed air that will rapidly expand from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a beach ball.

This produces a pulse of sound that will penetrate the water and about two kilometers of seabed beneath it.

While some critics spoke of bursts of sound similar to that of a jet engine, Mountain said it would be much less, inaudible to humans a quarter mile away.

Much as a medical sonogram, in which sound bounces back differently from bones and tissue, the characteristics of the returning seismic sound waves - picked up by hydrophones towed behind the ship - will reveal much about the sea bed.

Seismic imaging isn't new, but it has advanced considerably in recent years. Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which operates the ship, said acoustic and seismic research have "contributed more to understanding Earth's physical history, natural hazard potential and climate systems than perhaps all other scientific technology combined."

For geologists, the crystal ball lies in the past - as long ago as 50 million years. As sea level rose and fell over time, the shoreline was 50 miles inland, or 75 miles seaward, of where it is today.

Huge rivers flowed across the area, and the goal of the research is to "see" the deep channels, sandbars, lagoons, bays, and beaches of the time.

In part, the deep topography will tell them whether sea level rise was gradual or episodic - like stair steps, with periods of stability interspersed with sudden rises, as might be expected if a Greenland ice sheet were to melt and slide into the sea.

The data will help the researchers predict what might happen at the Jersey Shore. And if what actually happens is different, it might help them understand why.

The researchers contend that no other coastline on earth offers a similar opportunity for researchers to anticipate its future, just miles offshore.

The research builds on previous projects, including a 2009 expedition to the same area. At that time, researchers drilled nearly half a mile into the seabed, extracting long cores of material.

By examining the material itself and the microfossils embedded in it, they were able to get snapshots of where, say, a beach was during a particular time. Or, if it was under water, how deep the water was.

The cores are valuable, Mountain said. "They tell you the environment and the age. But they don't tell you what happened three feet away."

The 3-D seismic data will give them the ability to slice and dice the entire area, he said.

The voyage was to have begun in early June. But that now may be on hold. The researchers needed permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to "take" - or harm - up to 26 species of marine mammals, including whales and dolphins.

In this case, the harm would be not injury or death, but a disturbance, such as inducing a whale to change course, stop feeding, or stop communicating with other whales.

To lessen the likelihood, five marine mammal experts will be on board for constant observation, with strict protocols for slowing - or shutting down - the operation if certain species are detected.

The service initially recommended approval, but after requests from critics, agreed to a 30-day extension of a public comment period. It is now considering the responses.

Among them, nine environmental groups, including Clean Ocean Action, Save Barnegat Bay, and the Center for Biological Diversity, asked that the permission be denied or, if granted, require that the research not take place during the summer migration and fishing season.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also weighed in. John Gray, acting director of the office of the deputy commissioner, said that the entire study area is used by commercial and recreational fishermen.

He contended that it was "reasonably foreseeable" that the seismic surveys would lead to "negative consequences to N.J.'s fishing industries."

But Lincoln S. Hollister, professor emeritus and senior geologist at Princeton University, wrote that the science was subject to "rigorous peer review" and delays were unwarranted.

He dismissed some of the concerns as "irresponsible paranoia." A similar project in British Columbia, scuttled by similar objections, resulted in an "immeasurable" loss to science, he said, "because we could not get the data."


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|