It all started with a trip to San Juan Island, WA a few weeks ago. Killer whales were sighted on our first day - a pod in the area known as "J-Pod". The day after, it was supposed to rain, so we decided to start the day with a visit to the Whale Museum. The 2015 video "Sonic Sea" inspired my story today:
This two-minute trailer gives a good intro to this impressive video and its ability to pack so much understanding of this dire situation. The video is $2.99 on their site, free with entry to the museum. It is very informative and, unlike this diary, very visual.
Sonar and other underwater noise pollution is one of the least reported pollution of our air, land, waterways and oceans. There are some obvious redundancies in the articles below, which is purposeful on my part.
The ocean is not void of sound, by any means. Sound waves travel farther and faster in the sea’s dark depths than they do in the air, disrupting much of marine life like whales, dolphins, fish and other sea creatures’ ability to rely on communication by sound to navigate, find food, and mate. The increasingly relentless barrage of human-generated ocean noise pollution is changing the underwater acoustic landscape, harming and often killing marine species. This devastation is happening all over the planet, but there are many things you can do to reduce or remove those oceanic “killer waves” of noise pollution.
First let’s look at the problems and who is causing them.
Ocean Pollution: The Dirty Facts
We’re drowning marine ecosystems in trash, noise, oil, and carbon emissions.
Consider the incessant din of the roughly 60,000 commercial tanker and container ships that ply the seas at any given time. The underwater racket that results creates a kind of “smog” that reaches nearly every corner of the ocean and shrinks the sensory range of marine wildlife. High-intensity sonar used by the U.S. Navy for testing and training causes some of the same effects—and has been linked to mass whale strandings.
Meanwhile, in the hunt for offshore oil and gas, ships equipped with high-powered airguns fire compressed air into the water every 10 to 12 seconds for weeks to months on end. Traveling as far as 2,500 miles, these deafening seismic blasts disrupt foraging, mating, and other vital behaviors of endangered whales (and may ultimately push some, such as the North Atlantic right whale, to extinction). The blasts lead some commercial fish species to abandon their habitat—a direct hit on coastal economies dependent on catch rates; they also injure and kill marine invertebrates, including scallops, crabs, and squid."
"Sonar technology emits sound vibrations into the water, then records the echoes of that sound off various distant objects. This method is useful for mapping the ocean floor and detecting underwater vessels, such as submarines. The sounds emitted by tactical/military sonar are particularly powerful, capable of traveling hundreds of miles through the ocean in order to track distant threats. These vibrations can strike whales with tremendous force. In fact, the impact of mid-frequency military sonar on a whale's hearing can be equivalent to that of a jet engine at takeoff on the ears of a human located only three feet away.
The source below comes gift-wrapped with a solution: Legal challenges.
Sonar systems—first developed by the U.S. Navy to detect enemy submarines—generate slow-rolling sound waves topping out at around 235 decibels; the world’s loudest rock bands top out at only 130.
In 2003, NRDC spearheaded a successful lawsuit against the Navy to restrict the use of low-frequency sonar off the coast of California. Two years later a coalition of green groups led by NRDC and including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League for Coastal Protection, Cetacean Society International, and Ocean Futures Society upped the ante, asking the federal courts to also restrict testing of more intense, harmful and far ranging mid-frequency types of sonar off Southern California’s coastline.
In filing their brief, the groups cited Navy documents which estimated that such testing would kill some 170,000 marine mammals and cause permanent injury to more than 500 whales, not to mention temporary deafness for at least 8,000 others.Coalition lawyers argued that the Navy’s testing was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Two lower courts upheld NRDC’s claims, but the Supreme Court ruled that the Navy should be allowed to continue the use of some mid-frequency sonar testing for the sake of national security. “The decision places marine mammals at greater risk of serious and needless harm,” says NRDC’s Joel Reynolds.
We see once again the importance of Supreme Court appointees. Voting is the second strategy to reduce this pollution. As the tide turns against climate “deniers”, we will have more opportunity to elect local, state and federal legislators who can help to regulate these polluting offenders.
Noise Pollution Impacting Marine Animals Worse Than Previously Thought
In recent decades, the level of marine noise pollution has increased significantly due to the intensification of fishing, shipping, and infrastructure development. Human activity has not only made the ocean noisier, the analysis found, but it is also drowning out the sounds of its marine animals. “The landscape of sound — or soundscape — is such a powerful indicator of the health of an environment,” Ben Haplern, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara and coauthor of the study, said in a statement. “Like we have done in our cities on land, we have replaced the sounds of nature throughout the ocean with those of humans.”
“No one really wants to live right next to a freeway because of the constant noise,” said Halpern. “For animals in the ocean, [nearby shipping lanes are] like having a mega-freeway in your backyard.”
Whales living along the Atlantic coast were immersed in the sounds of deliveries from Europe and north Africa: office chairs, books, wine and olive oil. Having lived most of my life inland, many hours’ drive from the sea, I have seldom seen or heard whales. But the whales hear me. They are immersed in the sounds of my purchases from over the horizon every day of their lives.
The converging shipping lanes around major seaports are focal points for a noise problem that extends across the oceans. In the 1950s, about 30,000 merchant vessels plied the world’s oceans. Now about 100,000 do, many of them with much larger engines. Tonnage of cargo has increased tenfold.
The shipping industry is not only responsible for the direct killing of whales by ship strikes and the contribution of significant greenhouse gas emissions to the Earth’s atmosphere — it also remains the most poorly regulated source of ocean noise pollution. The Center is working to clean up every aspect of the shipping industry."
Our endless trail of shipping containers filled with cardboard boxes, each containing products made overseas deemed necessary to someone. Some are, some definitely aren’t. Be thrifty and fix that broken dishwasher instead of immediately buying a new one. Be more in touch with what you really need, verses something the advertisers told you to buy, some tool that will cost more time than it will save, something you just don’t really need. Think about the pollution associated with the item, including plastics and other toxic components, and the pollution of that ship carrying your item and killing marine life at random on its voyage. I personally enjoy trying to fix broken household items, both for financial savings but more importantly for landfill savings / pollution savings / manufacture savings / raw material savings. Another solution: reduce your needs. Enjoy and be satisfied without needing ever more crap you are told to purchase.
An additional solution is to slow down! Ships don’t need to travel at such a noisy, high speed to reach a destination port that has a 3-day wait to unload. The noise pollution saved would be tremendous.
Beside the explosive growth of the shipping industry polluting out oceans with noise, there is pollution from construction of pipelines, oil rigs, and wind turbines.
Whilst we may picture the open ocean as a vast expanse of calm, the water is actually filled with the noises of ships' engines, military sonar activities, construction work and seismic blasts. All this sounds like it would easily give us a headache on land, yet for those underwater, the clanging and rumbling sounds are amplified. Water particles are packed more densely than particles in air, allowing the energy carried by sound waves to travel much faster. Yet sound is also refracted off the thermocline layer, further increasing the impact of noise. This means that sound bounces off a certain layer in the ocean where warm temperatures suddenly change to cooler ones, a layer known as the sound channel. With sound bouncing back upwards towards the surface, it can travel far more miles without losing any energy, meaning noises underwater are louder than the same noise on land.
Shipping certainly isn't the only human activity which is contributing to the cacophony in our oceans. Mining is a growing source of noise underwater as we search for oil, gas and precious metals. Seismic surveys are used to determine whether oil and gas lie under the seabed and the technology uses large airgun arrays which fire every seven to ten seconds... and often last for weeks, maybe even months.
Sonar technology is another massive cause of stress to marine animals and often causes some of the most acute responses. This technology is used by the military to detect submarines and creates slow rolling soundwaves which can be deafening underwater. These sonar soundwaves can reach 235 decibels and to put that into context, the world's loudest ever rock bands, including AC/DC, Kiss and Motorhead, have only ever reached between 130-140 decibels.
Last but not least, the increasing level of underwater construction, especially of renewable energy infrastructure, is causing the undersea environment to become even noisier. Wind farms for example, require steel tubes to be hammered into the seafloor to provide the base for wind turbines. In order to do this, thousands of loud, banging, constant hammer strikes are needed and this noise can travel up to 100 miles away.
This noise pollution is so very different from noise pollution in the air. In fact, a 1991 study from Washington University noted it can travel thousands of miles without the signal losing considerable energy. In fact, in The Heard Island Feasibility Test (HIFT) sound was detected on the opposite side of the Earth.
staff.washington. edu/… (2007)
The Heard Island Feasibility Test (HIFT) was an experiment conducted in 1991 to test the ability of man-made acoustic signals to travel throughout the world's oceans. The experiment was used to test engineering of acoustic sources and receivers for transglobal ranges, to study the nature of acoustic signals recorded at great distances from their source, and as a preliminary test of the tool of long-range acoustics for the purposes of measuring global oceanic climate change.
The SOFAR channel (short for "sound fixing and ranging channel"), or deep sound channel (DSC), is a horizontal layer of water in the ocean centered around the depth at which the speed of sound is at a minimum. The SOFAR channel acts as a waveguide for sound, and low frequency sound waves within the channel may travel thousands of miles before dissipating. This phenomenon is an important factor in submarine warfare. The deep sound channel was discovered and described independently by Dr. Maurice Ewing, and Leonid Brekhovskikh in the 1940s.
Fewer than five of the transducers from the low frequency active array were used in the Heard Island Feasibility Test, and the sound was detected on the opposite side of the Earth.
The 1960 Perth to Bermuda Experiment:
In 1960 the sounds from a sequence explosive charge detonated off Perth, Australia were detected at Bermuda in the North Atlantic, about 19,820 km away.
Close your eyes. Your world is now only sound -- the rain, the traffic, that far-off siren. In this acoustic world, how you navigate, find food, your children, or mate, all depends upon how well you hear. Imagine that as you search in the darkness for a crying child, a horrifying drone, loud as a rocket, suddenly blasts sound pulses like shockwaves through your home.
There are no noise-cancelling headphones to stop the U.S. Navy's 235-decibel pressure waves of unbearable pinging and metallic shrieking. At 200 Db, the vibrations can rupture your lungs, and above 210 Db, the lethal noise can bore straight through your brain until it hemorrhages that delicate tissue. If you're not deaf after this devastating sonar blast, you're dead.
"In the Navy's latest environmental impact statement draft, they admit that the sonar exercises planned for 2014-2018 may unintentionally "harm marine mammals 2.8 million times over five years." This estimate is up about 150,000 instances a year from their EIS statement of 2009-2013. Included in this estimate are two million incidents of "temporary hearing loss," and 2,000 are targeted for permanent hearing loss.
A deaf whale is a dead whale. Dr. Lindy Weilgart, sperm whale researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia warns us "There are some technologies that simply should never be used. As a scientist -- and as a mother and fellow inhabitant of this fragile planet -- I am alarmed at this new threat to our oceans. The ocean gives us our air, our water, our food, and regulates our climate. The ocean literally enables human life."
More legislation to reduce / remove this Navy testing would be directly beneficial to our oceanic neighbors. I am imagining signage like “Defund the Navy!” but in actuality we need to reduce defense spending by the amount needed to ensure food, shelter, clothing and safety for ALL Americans. This would be a good place to start tightening the belt.
"Sound is a fundamental cue for feeding, navigation, communication and social interaction in the ocean," [Prof Carlos Duarte, King Abdullah University, Saudi Arabia] told BBC News.
A great deal of the decades of research into ocean sound has focused on marine mammals such as humpback whales that communicate across vast distances with complex and mysterious songs.
But Prof Duarte said there was evidence even newly hatched fish larvae were now unable to hear "the call of home" when drifting in the vast ocean.
"We now know that [these tiny larvae] hear the call from their habitat and follow it," he said.
"And that call is no longer being heard."
About seismic testing on the east cost for oil
exploration exploitation, Greenpeace writes in 2013 that:
"According to government estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will soon be injured and possibly killed along the east coast of the U.S. if exploration companies are allowed to use dangerous blasts of noise to search for offshore oil and gas.
And geophysical companies — working on behalf of oil and gas corporations — are seeking permission from the government to use seismic airguns to search for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean.
These airguns use loud blasts on a recurring basis, going off every ten seconds, for 24 hours a day, often for weeks on end. They are so loud that they penetrate through the ocean and miles into the seafloor, then bounce back, bringing information to the surface about the location of buried oil and gas deposits.
Airgun blasts harm whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and fish. The types of impacts marine mammals may endure include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, beach strandings, and even death. Seismic airguns could devastate marine life, harming fisheries and coastal economies along the Atlantic coast."
Solution? Stop oil and gas exploration.
"It's hard for us to imagine how marine creatures sense within their world. What's clear is that the picture is complex, and that human-induced impacts make that even more challenging.
Danny Groves, communications manager at the non-profit Whale and Dolphin Conservation says: "Noise pollution threatens whale and dolphin populations, interrupting their normal behaviour, driving them away from areas important to their survival [for breeding, socialising and feeding] and at worst injuring them or sometimes even causing death," he says. Natural impacts such as earthquakes and lightning strikes also make big, sudden noises but tend to be more intermittent."
Acoustic pollution can hinder communication and echolocation sounds, change an animal's behaviour and elevate stress levels. For North Atlantic right whales, low-frequency noise from big ships can result in an increase in stress-related chemicals linked to growth suppression, reduced fertility and poor immune system function. That chronic stress is having a physiological impact.
Sudden and acute impulsive noise in the marine environment might lead to ear trauma haemorrhage, while more chronic exposure from the constant low-level whirr of a shipping lane nearby could perhaps shift its behaviour patterns and make communication or feeding more difficult."
Bottom line: we are killing our oceanic life at alarming rates from noise pollution, and we must realize action is needed on this front. Capitalism’s need for a constant increasing profit, which typically means an increase in sales, will prevent most of the changes needed. That said, there is still much you can do. Here are a few supporting organizations:
The International Fund for Animal Welfare is fighting this pollution
The Marine Mammal Commission
The World Economic Forum re-posted an informative article from Mongabay
*I was able to get my new booster scheduled, but accidentally scheduled it to coincide with this diary, so I will be unavailable for a little bit!