People expend a lot of energy avoiding unpleasant noises. They purchase special headphones, stock up on ear plugs, avoid loud areas, and even decide on where to live based on the soundscape. Marine animals have no such recourse, but they could really use some help navigating the cacophonous ocean of noise created over the last century through the industrialization of the Earth's major bodies of water.
A new government plan and a compelling documentary are just two of the ways this global crisis is starting to garner much needed attention, even as expanding ocean transport and development continue to turn up the volume underwater.
Air is a great medium for light. It allows us to see distant mountains and even stars that are light years away. Visibility underwater is measured in tens of feet, but sound travels much, much farther; all the way across oceans in fact. It also travels faster—In sea water, sound travels around 1,500 meters per second, about four times faster than it does in the air.
Throughout millions of years of evolution, whales, dolphins and other underwater creatures, including some invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, sea urchins, have developed communication methods to utilize this aural advantage. They use sound to find food, orient themselves, maintain social groups, and basically, to survive in the deep, blue sea.
But recently their well-tuned systems have come under attack from the symphony of human-caused noises emanating from cargo and commercial ships, offshore construction, seismic fossil fuel exploration, and navy sonar. According to Ocean Conservation Research, the ocean may be 10 times noisier now than it was just 50 years ago.
Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Fusion that ocean noise has become a "global crisis."
Jasny said ocean noise is causing a number of widespread problems, including negative behavioral effects, habitat abandonment, breeding trouble, foraging complications, and, in general, chronic stress. Just briefly consider listening to the pulsating sound of massive ships powering through the oceans all your life. Even worse, think about living half your life in the familiar quiet underwater ether only to have it usurped by mind-numbing noise. Since some whales can live over 100 years, this is effectively what's happened to them. Crazy.
"Curbing ocean noise is critical," Jasny said. "If we want marine life to have the resiliency needed to cope with other intractable problems, we need to curb the noise."
Jasny said the problem is increasingly being recognized by countries and intergovernmental organizations. For instance, on June 1 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a draft Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap that addresses ocean noise as a comprehensive issue rather than the case-by-case basis its been subject to in the past.
Jasny called the strategy promising in that it acknowledges the problem and the need to address it through restoring natural soundscapes in animal sanctuaries and keeping noise out of important habitats, among other measures. However, he said what's lacking is an implementation plan and a timeline for achieving that plan.
"We urge NOAA, having identified a serious problem that really is a crisis, to act rapidly on its promises," he said.
NOAA will be developing an implementation plan within the next year as the agency revises the draft document.
Jasny is featured in the new Discovery Channel film "Sonic Sea", an hourlong documentary narrated by Rachel McAdams and created in partnership with NRDC, Imaginary Forces, and International Fund for Animal Welfare. The film gives voice to this problem that is otherwise deaf to human ears by showing how whales and other animals suffer the harmful effects. In one instance, a number of whales end up beaching themselves in the Bahamas trying to escape the traumatic impacts of navy sonar, which causes hearing loss, internal hemorrhages, and other kinds of tissue trauma.
As for what all this sounds like to the animals, viewers get a hint of that too—and it's just as bad as you might imagine. We hear a pod of orcas and their playful sounds get interrupted by a container ship navigating into their waters. All communication is drowned out by an incessant screeching. I was glad the clip only endured a few seconds. Here's the trailer:
Rhea Suh, NRDC president, said "Sonic Sea", which premiered on May 19, is about building a global community to help turn down the volume on undersea noise.
"If our oceans die, we won’t survive," she said in a statement. "And here’s the thing: Ocean noise is a problem we can solve. Like a summer night when the fireworks end, our oceans return to their natural soundscape when we turn down the noise."
Jasny also emphasized that unlike most forms of pollution, when ocean noise stops, it goes away. If only this were the case for climate change…too bad greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades and even centuries.
According to Jasny and Suh, there are a number of ways that ocean noise pollution could be cranked down. For instance, Jasny said consolidating shipping lanes and possibly moving them could do a lot of good, especially as they approach ports. Using more advanced ship technology could also reduce noise and simply slowing down makes a big difference—it also saves a lot of fuel and reduces air pollution and fossil fuel emissions, which Jasny called a "win-win-win."
Jasny said the navys of the world have been quieting ships for years for security reasons, and that same technology could be used in the world of commercial shipping.
At the same time, navy sonar, developed to identify potential threats, can also be deployed with more precaution.
There are also alternative ways to map ocean floors that don't require such devastating seismic blasting. One such promising system is something called vibracize, which uses vibrations instead of loud blasts to map deep beneath the sea floor. Jasny said using technology such as this would allow industry to virtually eliminate sound above low frequencies, "thereby sparing marine mammals."
In April, a group of eighteen Senators, led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), sent a letter to president Obama strongly urging his administration to reject seismic exploration off the east coast, writing:
Exploration in the form of seismic airgun blasting continues to threaten marine ecosystems and productive fisheries. We ask that you protect this important and productive area from unnecessary, long-lasting harm and halt consideration of all G&G [geological and geophysical] oil and gas permits.
The letter states that the "extremely disruptive" activity has been shown to cause the catch of certain commercial fish species to plummet and to displace fish over large areas. It mentions the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered animals on the planet, as an example of what's at stake. These whales, of which there are only around 500 remaining, can regularly lose up to 80% of their communications range off the coast of Boston when it's disrupted by commercial shipping.
Whether off the coast of New England or miles underwater in the deepest trenches of the ocean, the underwater world is a noisy place—and just like the scene above ground, human impact can be very harmful to the natural balance. NOAA researchers recently sent an underwater microphone down nearly 36,000 feet below the water's surface to the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. What they heard was not quiet, but "almost constant noise" according to Robert Dziak, a research oceanographer and chief project scientist with NOAA.
This includes the sound of earthquakes, the moaning of whales, the hum of ship propellers, and even the reverberations of an overhead typhoon. Listen for yourself.