Characteristics and Propagation of Airgun Pulses in Shallow Water with Implications for Effects on Small Marine Mammals
Airguns used in seismic surveys are among the most prevalent and powerful anthropogenic noise sources in marine habitats. They are designed to produce most energy below 100 Hz, but the pulses have also been reported to contain medium-to-high frequency components with the potential to affect small marine mammals, which have their best hearing sensitivity at higher frequencies. In shallow water environments, inhabited by many of such species, the impact of airgun noise may be particularly challenging to assess due to complex propagation conditions. To alleviate the current lack of knowledge on the characteristics and propagation of airgun pulses in shallow water with implications for effects on small marine mammals, we recorded pulses from a single airgun with three operating volumes (10 in3, 25 in3 and 40 in3) at six ranges (6, 120, 200, 400, 800 and 1300 m) in a uniform shallow water habitat using two calibrated Reson 4014 hydrophones and four DSG-Ocean acoustic data recorders. We show that airgun pulses in this shallow habitat propagated out to 1300 meters in a way that can be approximated by a 18log(r) geometric transmission loss model, but with a high pass filter effect from the shallow water depth. Source levels were back-calculated to 192 dB re µPa2s (sound exposure level) and 200 dB re 1 µPa dB Leq-fast (rms over 125 ms duration), and the pulses contained substantial energy up to 10 kHz, even at the furthest recording station at 1300 meters. We conclude that the risk of causing hearing damage when using single airguns in shallow waters is small for both pinnipeds and porpoises. However, there is substantial potential for significant behavioral responses out to several km from the airgun, well beyond the commonly used shut-down zone of 500 meters.