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Breaking The Silence

Breaking The Silence

For centuries, newcomers to the Arctic have marvelled at its powerful stillness. But as the ice melts away and shipping traffic rises, can the Arctic fight back against noise?
By Samia Madwar
Jul 11
From the July 2016 Issue

Above the surface, all was quiet. The Arctic summer breeze caught the flaps of Valeria Vergara’s yurt on a cliff overlooking the calm waters of the Cunningham River delta. The Vancouver-based researcher had flown across the country to Somerset Island, 90 kilometres south of Resolute Bay, Nunavut, to listen to beluga calls. These particular belugas spend every summer in Cunningham Inlet, an Arctic nursery along the Northwest Passage, where the calves feed, grow, and learn to communicate.

Through her work at the Vancouver Aquarium, Vergara has isolated 28 beluga calls so far. The sounds range from chirps and clicks to what sounds like a crackling radio or an approaching alien spaceship in a ‘70s sci-fi flick. Most importantly, she’s identified what’s known as a contact call, which mothers use to locate their calves, and groups of belugas use to keep track of each other. 

But here in the wild, it was different. For two field seasons, 2014 and 2015, Vergara was documenting beluga calls in their natural Arctic soundscape, free of human-made noises marring the background. Having studied belugas farther south in the St. Lawrence estuary in Québec, where heavy shipping traffic can drown out beluga chatter, she wanted to establish a baseline for beluga calls in a pristine, quiet environment.

Well, depending on what you consider to be quiet. “It’s deafening,” says Vergara, who uses hydrophones—think underwater microphones—to listen to and record the highly vocal species. “Belugas—they just don’t shut up.”

Photo by Viktor Lyagushkin/500PX

But soon, they’ll have to do the cetacean equivalent of shouting to make themselves heard. Shipping traffic in the Arctic is expected to rise as a result of melting ice and warmer waters, and belugas and other marine wildlife will face a barrage of loud, strange sounds coming from cargo ships, icebreakers, military vessels, cruise ships, fishing trawlers, even research ships. Many whales and dolphins rely heavily on their hearing to find prey, to navigate, and communicate. For them, the onslaught of noise would be more than just a nuisance; it would threaten all the tools they need for survival. It would be like forcing humans to live in a constant fog. 

Not that the Arctic is completely silent; breaking ice and whale calls can be extremely loud. But in an environment where they don’t belong, human-made activities at an industrial scale can drown out the entire soundscape.

Of course, belugas can adapt. They can call louder, or more often. But when it comes to calves, whose vocal range and flexibility isn’t as developed as adults, adapting is more difficult. Their contact calls are at lower frequencies than adults, and similar to the frequency of vessel noise. Though the phenomenon is still being studied, Vergara says it’s thought that if mothers become separated from their calves, and mothers can’t hear their calves, they might not be able to reunite, leaving the calves to fend for themselves. For the calves, that can be fatal.

Even for adults, the noise can be overwhelming. When it gets too loud, belugas and other marine mammals go silent, waiting until it quiets down enough to call again. But in the Arctic, where listening is one of the keys to survival, what if the noise never subsides?

Vergara has isolated 28 beluga calls so far. Photo courtesy Gretchen Freund

When the seals went deaf

In spring 2011, three Norwegian exploration companies held a meeting for the town of Clyde River, Nunavut, on the east coast of Baffin Island, to show the community what they’d planned for the summer. The companies—TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company ASA, Petroleum GeoServices and MultiKlient Invest AS—would be sending ships out to Baffin Bay for seismic testing, a method used to map geological features below the seabed. It’s a promising area for oil and gas, and seismic surveying can detect potential reserves. A discovery could lead to a development boom for their town in a few years. 

For his part, Jerry Natanine had no objections. “You know those oil-rich nations that have gotten wealthy from oil and gas?” says Natanine, who was Clyde River’s mayor at the time. “I was looking at those nations and thinking, ‘If we can only come up with that, then we would be wealthy, and our society would be different.’” But then he spoke to his father and uncle about the project. “They said to me, ‘Well we have to try and do everything to stop this,’” he recalls. Because this wasn’t the first time they’d heard of seismic testing.

In the ‘70s, Panarctic Oils conducted seismic surveys using dynamite along the coast north of Clyde River. Consultations with local communities weren’t required then, so Natanine’s father’s generation didn’t have a say in the project. But when they went seal hunting the following spring, Natanine’s father and uncle noticed the animals behaving oddly. The hunters could walk right up to the seals with barely a reaction. Some of the seals’ ears were infected, oozing pus. “That’s how they knew [the seals] were deaf,” says Natanine. 

Natanine began reading up on seismic testing. He learned the method uses pulses of sound emitted from an array of airguns towed behind ships. Depending on one’s distance to the airguns, those sound pulses can reach up to 230 decibels. For reference, a jet plane taking off can rupture human ears with 150 dB. Sounds as loud as 180 dB underwater have been shown to affect whale behaviour, leading to displacement or even whale strandings. Louder sounds can damage their hearing.

Considering the airgun pulses for seismic surveying are emitted every 13 to 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, for several months at a time—and considering that sound travels farther and faster underwater—it’s hard to see how marine wildlife could avoid being affected by them.

Natanine read of cases in northern Russia and off the coast of Greenland in which marine mammals were thought to have changed their migration routes to avoid seismic testing operations. And he discovered how tricky it is to nail seismic testing as the culprit.

“There’s no way to prove it, really,” he says. Not scientifically, at least. If he took a stand against the project, would the observations of a few Inuit hunters hold up against the word of three multibillion-dollar companies?

The blasts heard around the Bay

Every year around September 25, when ice begins to crackle into place in the fiords around Pond Inlet on the northern coast of Nunavut's Baffin Island, narwhales begin their annual exodus. After spending the summer near the coast, feeding on squid, shrimp, and fish, the whales migrate south, usually to the middle of Baffin Bay between eastern Nunavut and western Greenland. There, they spend their winters feeding below the dense pack ice.

But in the fall of 2008, something strange happened: some narwhal pods never left. Rather than migrating south toward their wintering grounds, the whales lingered at their summering grounds until November. By the time the ice off Pond Inlet thickened, blocking their usual route, it was too late: hundreds of narwhals became trapped in the ice, fighting for air. Local hunters harvested as many as they could so the animals would not suffocate or starve to death in vain.

It’s not unusual for narwhals to get trapped in ice. But according to Inuit hunters, entrapments are more common between February and March. What happened that November was bizarre.

There’s no scientific evidence that their entrapment—and another pair of similar cases the following year—had anything to do with airguns blasting pulses of sound in their traditional wintering grounds. But in late September and throughout October 2008, an exploration company had been conducting seismic surveys in the waters where Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the North Labrador Sea mix. 

It’s also worth noting that narwhals, like belugas, rely heavily on their hearing to navigate, communicate, and forage. They also follow strict migration routes and patterns every year. Unlike other whales, they spend their entire lives in the Arctic, governed by the movements of ice, sensitive to the slightest disturbance. 

A study led by Greenland-based biologist Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, published in the journal Biological Conservation in November 2012, doesn’t go as far as concluding that seismic testing caused those whale entrapments. It does, however, caution that loud enough noises can force narwhals to avoid places where seismic testing has occurred. By rerouting, they might fail to reach their wintering grounds in time, or head for suboptimal feeding grounds. Companies involved in seismic testing, the study concludes, should exercise “extreme caution” if they plan operate anywhere near narwhal summering grounds and migratory routes.

To Inuit, whose ancestors have observed, harvested, and protected these animals for generations, that’s an embarrassingly obvious conclusion. 

Natanine is not against development, but Inuit concerns must be respected. Photo by Leyland Cecco

"The Inuit are not gonna make much noise"

Jerry Natanine wasn’t alone. Within weeks of the 2011 meeting, letters began pouring in. Clyde River community members signed petitions; government agencies, though supportive of the exploration project, asked how the companies would protect local seal populations from harm; and fishermen wondered how their nets would be safe from survey ships. 

In 2013, the National Energy Board, the independent arm mandated to review development projects in Canada, toured Clyde River, Arctic Bay, and Pond Inlet for consultations. (The proposed seismic testing region falls outside Nunavut’s jurisdiction and is therefore a federal matter.) In each community, they met with near-unanimous opposition to the project. 

Despite the outcry, the NEB approved the companies’ application the following June. It wasn’t the first time: the board had already approved nine seismic surveying programs in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait since 2001. This proposed project “would not be likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,” the NEB’s report concluded.

Had the NEB not been listening during the consultations? “They were thinking there’s not going to be any opposition, and if there was, [the Inuit] are not gonna make much noise,” Natanine says. 

But they did make noise. One month after the program was approved, Natanine partnered with the Hamlet of Clyde River and the local hunters and trappers organization to take the case to the Federal Court of Appeal. The Crown, they argued, had failed in its duty to consult with the Inuit when it approved the project. (A spokesperson for the exploration companies refused to comment on the case aside from referring back to the NEB’s decision.)

The Clyde River team lost its application to the board for a judicial review last fall, but the case forced the companies, which were scheduled to begin testing in the summer of 2015, to delay their work for a year. Nader Hasan, the lawyer representing Natanine, the hamlet, and the hunters and trappers organization, took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which agreed to hear the appeal, setting the date for November 30 of this year. Once again, the companies had to postpone their testing: this past spring, they announced they would delay until 2017.

This case is exceptional for several reasons. For one, Clyde River has teamed up with several NGOs, including Greenpeace. That’s right: Greenpeace, the same environmental group that’s clashed with Inuit over seal hunting in recent years, is now a welcome ally in the battle to regulate seismic testing. During the first appeal last fall, Greenpeace members even stood outside the courthouse in Toronto bearing platters of whale skin, Arctic char, and seal meat for passersby to sample.

“We were thinking, ‘This is what we’re fighting for, our food, our right to eat, our right to hunt our own food,’” says Natanine. “I believe we relayed that message really nicely.”

For another, it’s a big deal for a Nunavut town of less than 1,000 to face off against the Canadian government as well as three international companies. Hasan, the hamlet's lawyer, likes to call it a “David and Goliath” case. But it’s not just about size; it’s about the Inuit voice, once largely ignored in national matters, gaining appreciable volume. Now that it’s reached the Supreme Court, their case has officially become a matter of national concern.

Then there’s the question of who gets the final say when it comes to environmental issues. The NEB’s report set out conditions the trio of companies would have to follow to mitigate adverse environmental effects. Those included having wildlife monitors—two of whom would have to be Inuit—onboard the surveying ships to keep an eye out for marine mammals nearby, in addition to acoustic technology to detect wildlife underwater. If any whales or seals got within a 500-metre radius of the operation, the airguns would be temporarily shut down. 

“That’s a great idea to have,” says Natanine, “but it’s going to be very limited. When there are two-feet-high waves ... it’s hard to see whales and seals that are around during those conditions. People can only see so far.”

Besides, even at a distance of half a kilometre, the blasts can have the power of 180 dB—enough to do temporary damage to a whale’s hearing. Narwhals are especially at risk, since the testing would take place in their wintering habitat. Although the airgun pulses would be emitted during the summer, the operation could still cause the whales to delay or reroute their migration.

Whatever the court’s decision, says Hasan, the case will be historic not just for Inuit, but for indigenous groups across the country. “Depending on how the court rules,” he says, “it will affect how every single development project that has an effect on indigenous rights goes ahead.”

Photo by Fabrice Simon/Minden Pictures

The quietest places in the world

“Iglus are the most quiet ice you can find,” says Terje Isungset. “Even sounds from your body sound noisy when you’re in there for a while.” 

For the past 17 years, the Norwegian percussionist has made music out of instruments carved from ice—think xylophones and French horns—pairing them with vocals for an otherworldly soundscape. He’s toured in Europe, Japan, and North America, including stops in Iqaluit and Yellowknife, sampling the sounds of local ice wherever he goes. But he’s also harnessed the insulating silence of ice, recording tracks for his latest album, Meditations, from within custom-built iglus.

The music itself always surprises him, revealing an auditory world beyond what human ears can pick up. “There’s a huge variety in ice sounds from different parts of the world, from year to year,” he says. Arctic ice sounds nothing like Antarctic ice; freshwater ice is unlike sea ice; and this year’s ice will be nothing like last year’s crop. 

There’s nothing musical about manufactured ice, or ice from polluted waters; all they produce is a dull ping, says Isungset. It’s an ominous indication of what industrial activity can do to the Arctic’s natural soundscape. 

“We understand nothing about what’s going on [underwater],” he says. “We’re throwing garbage, there are boats and ships, there’s drilling—it must be hell to be a fish.” But the Arctic won’t be quiet forever, and Isungset knows it. So do Northerners. The ships will come; eventually, offshore oil platforms will drill. As the ice melts, the Arctic Ocean will lose that insulating layer of silence, and with it, it'll lose the organic soundscape.

To Jerry Natanine, the battle ahead isn’t about stopping development in its tracks to tray and save the ice; it’s about giving locals a chance to have a say in it.

The hamlet is working with Greenpeace to develop renewable energy: in August, one of the organization’s ships will deliver solar panels to be installed atop Clyde River’s community hall, and train locals to maintain the panels. Solar energy isn’t noisy, Natanine points out. “No moving parts.”

In the meantime, he’ll be out at Baffin Bay this summer as he is every year, hunting and fishing, enjoying the serenity of another season with no survey ships. Aside from the seagulls and ducks, there’s little out there to break the stillness—”nothing except the ringing in your ears,” he says, laughing. 

We tend to view change in the Arctic in terms of sea ice melting, temperatures rising, and wildlife losing their habitat. But the right to quiet, the right to listen and be listened to, is a casualty that’s often overlooked. 

There’s no tangible way to preserve it. National parks and marine protected areas might close off parts of the land and water to development or industrial activity, but aside from distance, no borders can restrict the spread of noise from motors, drills, or airgun blasts. 

What can easily change is for southerners to recognize that the Arctic has its own sounds, its own voices, whether it comes from whales, people, or the landscape itself. And they can listen.

Clarification: a previous version of this article stated that the contact calls of beluga calves were at a high frequency, similar to vessel noise. The calves, in fact, make lower frequency calls, which are more likely to be masked by vessel noise.