Seismic Lines in the Boreal and Arctic Ecosystems of North America: Environmental Impacts, Challenges, and Opportunities

Anna Dabros
Matthew Pyper
Guillermo Castilla
Resource Date:

The oil and gas industry has grown significantly throughout the boreal and arctic ecosystems of North America. A major feature of the ecological footprint of oil and gas exploration is seismic lines—narrow corridors used to transport and deploy geophysical survey equipment. These lines, which traverse forests, tundra, uplands, and peatlands, were historically up to 10 m wide. Over the past decade, seismic lines have decreased in width (in some cases down to 1.75–3 m); however, their density has increased drastically and their construction is expected to continue in regions of Canada and the United States that are rich in oil and gas resources. We examine the literature related to the environmental impacts of, and restoration and reclamation efforts associated with, seismic lines in the boreal and arctic ecosystems of North America. With respect to conventional seismic lines, numerous studies report significant and persistent environmental changes along these lines and slow recovery of vegetation that translates into a lasting fragmentation of the landscape. This fragmentation has many ramifications for biodiversity and ecosystem processes, including significant implications for threatened woodland caribou herds. While modern, low-impact seismic lines have comparatively lower ecological effects at the site-level, their high density and associated potential edge effects suggest that their actual environmental impact may be underestimated. Seismic line restoration is a critical aspect of future integrated landscape management in hydrocarbon-rich regions of the boreal-arctic, and if widely applied, has the potential to benefit a wide range of species and maintain or re-establish key ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity.