Read our COVID-19 research and news.

In Italy, researchers blast proposal to ban seafloor mapping with air guns

Scientists in Italy are protesting a move by politicians to outlaw the use of high-pressure blasts of air to map the sea floor. Backers of the ban say it is needed to protect marine mammals and other creatures that can be harmed by the noise created by so-called air guns. But opponents argue the measure—which includes jail terms of up to 3 years for violators—would damage research and energy prospecting efforts in Italian waters, and that there are less onerous ways to protect sea life.

Air guns, which are towed by ships, use compressed air to generate sound waves that reflect off seafloor rock formations. Differences in the reflections allow researchers to map seafloor geology, and such seismic surveys are often used to identify new sources of oil and gas, as well as earthquake-generating faults or magma chambers that could create volcanic eruptions. But the noise created by air guns has been implicated in disturbing marine environments, and even causing the deaths of some marine mammals. As a result, many nations require survey vessels to take steps to protect sea life, such as halting surveys if animals are seen nearby or forbidding measurements in particularly sensitive regions or during certain seasons.

No country has banned the technique outright, however, notes Elisabetta Erba, president of the Italian Geological Society in Rome. The Italian ban, which is part of an environmental protection bill, was proposed by two center-right senators and approved by Parliament’s upper house on a 114 to 103 vote on 3 March. The bill, which establishes a number of “eco crimes,” now awaits a vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

"Equating the technique of seismic reflection to an ecocrime such as the release of pollutants is scientifically wrong and misleading," Erba wrote in a statement released by the Italian Geological Society on 10 March. "Hitting research is not the way to enact serious policies requiring industry to respect the environment."

Similar sentiments were expressed in a 9 March note to government officials and parliamentarians from the presidents of several of the Italian research institutions that make regular use of air guns, including the National Research Council, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. The research bosses argue that the drafters of the measure are not really concerned about the environment but want to block oil and gas exploration—a sensitive subject given the considerable opposition in Italy to new onshore and offshore drilling. They also claim that the parliamentary debate on the measure contained many scientific errors. It is "incomprehensible," they write, that politicians did not seek their institutes' views on the matter.

One of the senators who put forward the amendment, former surgeon Giuseppe Compagnone of the GAL parliamentary coalition, says he is not confident that the measure will become law. The lower house is dominated by supporters of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government, he notes, which opposed the measure in the Senate.

It is not yet known exactly when the lower chamber will vote. If it makes any changes to the bill, the measure must return to the Senate for an additional vote.