New Study Finds It’s Noisy in the Deep

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

New scientific research sheds light on a growing problem — ocean noise pollution — but the good news is that this one is solvable.  According to a paper published by 25 scientists from around the globe looking at the quantity and intensity of human-caused ocean noise — from humans ships, seismic surveys, air guns, pile drivers, dynamite fishing, drilling platforms, speedboats, and even surfing — these activities are now so noisy that it is literally stressing out marine life.  The problem is that much of ocean life depends on sound for survival and when anthropogenic noise increases, it drowns out the soundscapes that guide ocean life, The New York Times reports.

Why This Matters:  Impacts of noise had been documented on marine mammals like dolphins, but now it is clear it impacts a wide variety of marine life, including zooplankton and jellyfish.  “The extent of the problem of noise pollution has only recently dawned on us,”  one of the study’s lead authors told the TimesThe ocean is not quiet — its noises are gases bubbling from hydrothermal vents and countless creatures at all levels of the food chain nibbling, clicking, and even singing. The rumble of warships and banging of metal can be quieted if we so choose.

Ignoring Noise

While the tragedy of ocean plastic pollution is well known, noise pollution in the ocean is a little-understood problem for most people.  Since the ocean is so vast, it is hard to imagine noise being an issue, but as this new study indicates, the ocean’s natural soundscape is being drowned out in a big way.  At the beginning of the research on ocean noise, scientists tended to examine how a particular noise might affect marine life based on the way individual large animals responded to very impactful sounds such as a whale taking a detour around oil rigs during its migration.  But what they realized looking at many more species and locations is that for some species — benthic creatures like slow-moving sea cucumbers — they have little relief from noise because they cannot move quickly to avoid it.  Other species are able to adapt to noise pollution a bit more readily by swimming or crawling away from it, to the extent they can avoid it.   But if the noise is permanent, then species that are negatively impacted have no choice but to leave altogether.

Patterns Emerged

Scientists had been studying this problem in local areas for many years, but until now, they had not pooled their research and looked for common trends and patterns.  The lead researcher hoped that if he could pull together all the studies, it would be “loud” enough to attract attention and lead to policy changes.  So he gathered other experts from around the globe and they reviewed more than 10,000 papers to ensure they got the full sound picture.  He told the Times the detrimental impacts became immediately clearer.  “With all that research, you realize you know more than you think you know,” he said.

To Go Deeper: Check out this podcast on the songs made by Puget Sound’s orca whale population, or watch the award-winning documentary from IFAW and NRDC on ocean noise entitled “Sonic Sea” here.

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