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Softening the sound of drilling – with bubbles
Energy resources locked in rock beneath the sea are vital to world supplies. Yet noise from drilling and oil production activities can interfere with the communication channels of whales. Shell is investigating a novel way to reduce this impact: curtains of bubbles.
Underwater noise from a variety of industrial activities, including oil exploration drilling, can interfere with marine mammal communication. Surrounding seabed installations with a bubble curtain to deaden the sound could be one way of preventing this.
In Arctic waters, for example, the bowhead whale communicates using the same low-frequency range as the noise generated by potential drilling operations.
Moreover, indigenous people hunt the bowhead whale for food when it migrates twice a year through the region. There are concerns that noise from oil exploration activities could lead to whales following different routes, taking them out of reach of local communities.
To avoid this, Shell is experimenting with the use of bubble curtains for operations off the coast of Alaska in the coming years. The bubbles, around the size of a tennis ball, form a sound barrier.
In one approach Shell is testing, the bubbles consist of plastic spheres contained in fabric which is anchored or hung in a frame around the drilling installation.
Shell is working on the project with researchers at the University of Texas in the USA.
“Bubbles could solve a very complex problem, very simply,” says John Ward, Shell Principal Concept Engineer.