New technology aims to help the oil and gas industry avoid marine animals during exploration

17 July 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The rising tide of underwater noise. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Oil and gas exploration is happening throughout the Arctic. With increased sea ice melt due to climate change, the pressures to allow even more industrial activity will only increase, leading to more and more noise in underwater environments. A global water and environment firm has developed software for the oil and gas industry to mitigate those harms—but could the tool ultimately make matters worse?

New technology designed to help industry avoid marine animals in Arctic oceans has promise, but may be a double-edged sword.

The technology—software known as MARAMBS (for Marine Animal Ranging Assessment Model Barents Sea)—was developed by DHI, a global firm specializing in technological solutions for water environments and co-funded by the Research Council of Norway. It mimics the behaviour of various species in the marine environment and models their responses to stresses like underwater noise. The idea is to help oil and gas exploration companies avoid contact with them. In theory, the tool could also be used by regulators or any organization planning protected areas.

“We use the technology to simulate the movements of birds and marine mammals in the Barents Sea,” explains Mads Madsen, an ecological and water modelling expert with DHI.

Madsen, who specializes in spill risk assessment during offshore oil and gas activities and manages the MARAMBS project at DHI, developed the software with Dr. Frank Thomsen, a DHI scientist whose research focuses on the sounds made by killer whales and the impacts of human-made noise on whales.

The idea behind MARAMBS is to understand and assess the impacts of human activities on ocean life, including whales and fish, as industry increases in the marine Arctic. The problem with conventional risk assessments is that they are “static,” says Madsen—meaning they don’t factor in how marine animals change locations. “But we know that marine life is mobile and moves in relation to environmental variables and human impacts,” he explains. “Simulating these movements is at the heart of MARAMBS.”

MARAMBS can help identify risks earlier and more accurately compared with older technologies, so industry can take more focused management measures. Madsen says operators in the Barents Sea can use the technology’s Web-based data portal to plan their activities in the most environmentally friendly manner possible, while research organizations can use it to gather data on marine life.

Data from the MARAMBS project cover the entire Barents Sea as well as parts of adjacent seas, and are available on an hourly, daily or period average basis. Madsen says this allows offshore operators planning activities in a specific area to extract information on the presence and density of species for the relevant activity period.

MARAMBS doesn’t currently report on the presence of marine animals in real time. Its species density maps use hindcast metocean data—historical data derived from a blend of meteorology and physical oceanography conditions like winds, waves and climate. An underlying assumption of the technology is that marine animals’ movements and migrations are largely influenced by an area’s stable physical conditions—such as currents, salinity and temperature—and can therefore be predicted with reasonable accuracy.

The obvious issue with the existing premise of the technology is that while the goal of MARAMBS is to protect marine wildlife, it also supports the oil and gas industry. It won’t reduce industrial activity or development overall—and oil and gas development is hastening climate change, whose effects are felt most intensely in the Arctic.

Nils Harley Boisen, a WWF advisor for Arctic and northern areas, says while technologies like MARAMBS are often branded as tools to help the environment, the problem is they tend to be used as a justification for opening up new oil and gas exploration areas.

“It can be a way for industry to ‘de-risk’ itself and justify expanding its activities by appearing to have a heightened regard for environmental conditions,” says Boisen. “But in reality, it may not reduce the risk or likelihood of accidents happening.”

A tool like MARAMBS could be powerful and useful in the right hands, says Boisen, who would prefer to see it used to define marine protected areas. For instance, researchers could test how effective the technology is in a variety of circumstances. But that would mean making the technology accessible to everyone, not just those who can pay.

“This is something environmental authorities should have in their toolbox rather than private companies,” he argues. “Unfortunately, we view Norway’s ambitions in the Barents Sea as an international door-opener for Arctic oil and gas.”

If MARAMBS is indeed suited for broader applications, such as research, regulation and planning, perhaps industry will do the right thing and create the opportunity for more planet-friendly uses for it.

Nils Harley Boisen
Advisor, Arctic and Northern Areas