Scientists Could Use Whale Songs to Map Ocean Floor

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study has found that whale songs can be a powerful tool for mapping the ocean floor. Seismic testing done by humans can harm whales and other marine life, but by using whale songs instead, scientists believe the practice can be adapted to be much less harmful to marine populations. The researchers found that the loud and firecracker-esque calls of the fin whale have valuable information hidden inside and can help scientists monitor seismic activity like earthquakes.

Why This Matters: For years, the fossil fuel industry has hauled “seismic guns” behind large boats, blasting loud, harmful bursts of sound that disturb sea life and impair the sonar of animals like whales and dolphins. The sounds can disturb animals thousands of kilometers away from the source and can impact everything from navigation to the breeding of animals caught in range. Fossil fuel companies use the data they collect to find prime spots to drill for underwater oil, but as the Biden administration begins fulfilling commitments to transition the nation away from fossil fuels, experts say the practice is becoming less necessary. Phasing out oil drilling will mean far less seismic testing, but researchers still need data from these tests to monitor underwater earthquakes, plan offshore wind farms, and plan other ocean infrastructure. That’s where the fin whale comes in.

Fin Whales, Fine Songs

Fin whale calls can reach up to 189 decibels, louder than gunshots and comparable to the volume of large ships. Their sound is so unique, said Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC, “it took some time before oceanographers figured out this was actually an animal.” These whales are also able to sing at consistent pitches and volumes, a major benefit for mapping the ocean floor accurately. While a standard seismic gun would blast sound every ten seconds or so for days or weeks on end, fin whales can hold a consistent, land much less disturbing, song for hours. What’s more: these songs work with existing infrastructure to reveal valuable data about sediment, fault lines, and the animals themselves. Researchers found that fin whale calls interacted with previously installed ocean-bottom seismometer stations in Oregon.

The Future of Seismic Testing

Despite the potential of whale songs as a method of mapping the ocean floor, experts say it probably won’t be able to completely replace traditional seismic testing. But whales won’t be the only ones working to curb the practice. Lawmakers have begun proposing legislation that would ban or drastically reduce seismic gun usage in the ocean. In October 2020, nine East coast organizations filed and won a lawsuit to prevent fossil fuel companies from using seismic guns in the Atlantic ocean. In 2019, House Democrats introduced a bill to prohibit the Interior Department from leasing tracts of coastal waters for oil and gas drilling, effectively preventing pre-drilling activities like seismic gun usage. President Biden has made promises to protect 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, which would further protect ocean life from harmful noise pollution.

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