Ocean Noise: What’s causing it (and what you can do about it)

The amount of noise in the ocean has doubled each decade since the 1950s.

Why? Because of us (of course).

Noise from human activities is blasting through the ocean constantly. A sound signal created in the Indian Ocean can travel all the way to the coast of Washington State, as sound travels much farther in salt water than it does on land. So whenever there is noise under water, there is no getting away from it (unless you want to jump ashore).

Marine mammals depend on their hearing for many of life’s most basic functions like foraging, finding a mate, avoiding predators, communicating, and navigating their way through the vast waters. All these activities are affected when we introduce noise into the ocean. When their own sound waves used for communicating are disrupted, whales, dolphins and orcas go silent, which can cause, among other issues, young mammals to get separated from the heard as they can no longer hear their mom’s call. Although, this is happening in virtually every ocean basin on the planet, it’s especially serious in the northern hemisphere where most human activities occur.

There are three major contributors to ocean noise.

1. Commercial shipping transport

Commercial shipping is the leading contributor to low-frequency ocean noise worldwide. The noise from engines, propellers and breaking of waves is constant as there are thousands of container ships at any given time on our oceans. Did you know that for example 97% of all clothing we buy in the US is imported? We import so many things from China that container ships often go back there empty.

2. Oil exploration using seismic surveys

Oil and gas explorers use seismic surveys (shock waves initiated by an air-gun blast) to produce detailed images of the various rock types and their location beneath the ocean floor. This information is used to determine the location and size of oil and gas reservoirs. These high-powered air guns blast compressed air about every 12 seconds for weeks to months at a time. (Of course the oil industry denies the serious impact of their methods. As with all oil activities, it’s perfectly safe and great.)

seismic
Picture from ChampionsforCetaceans.com

3. US Navy high-intensity sonar-training exercises

It works pretty much the same way as the seismic surveys, except the Navy is looking for foreign threats under the surface, not oil reservoirs. A low frequency active sonar device sends a pulse of energy through the water (a sound wave) that reflects off of objects so they are detected. They’re also testing weapons and explosives under water.

Whenever I blog about environmental threats, I always try to share some ideas on how we as citizens of the world can better the situation. Sure, awareness is key, but actions are what changes things. We can’t rely on the industries to change their behavior, they’ll always put dollars before the environment, and that’s that.

Isn’t it kind of obvious how we can reduce shipping transport? Exactly, we need to stop importing everything. The threat to marine life caused by shipping was actually one of my biggest reasons for starting the not made in China challenge in 2014. We can all do our part by focusing on buying locally made products and locally grown food (all you have to do is read the tag). We can also simply buy less. If something is imported from far away, and you don’t need it, leave it.

The shipping and transport industry has a huge responsibility too, naturally. Other than redesigning the ships to create less noise, simply traveling at lower speeds would reduce the noise level significantly.

If ships traveled slower and we reduced our imports from far away, we would use less heavy fuels to power shipping too, which brings me to our next action item.

Oil.

I am of the opinion that we need to keep it all in the ground, and that most certainly applies to off-shore reserves as well. We need to use less, and with that search less.

Now you might think of your gasoline usage and argue that you can’t get an electrical car or improve your car situation in any way. All right, I hear you (you’ve told me a thousand times). There are still many things you can do to reduce oil use, like carpooling, using the car with the best mileage when both cars are available (most American households have two), using public transport, biking or walking.

Changing your electricity provider to one providing only renewable energy also makes a huge difference. Many eco systems, not just under water, suffer from the consequences of oil and gas exploration (spills, seismic surveys, pollution, pipelines) while, contrary to popular belief, wind power turbines aren’t really a threat to anything in nature.  In fact, wind turbines are only responsible for 0.01% of bird fatalities (the main killers are buildings and power lines).

Then there’s plastic. Plastic is made from fossil fuel, you know. Every straw, every cup, every wrapper, every bag, every utensil, every net is made from either crude oil or natural gas byproducts, resources we’ve pumped out of the ground. And although plastic never degrades naturally (that means it lasts forever), the majority of Americans treat it like it is a disposable item. Since scientists predict there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, reducing plastic use also helps marine life in that they don’t swallow it (leading to hormone disturbances or death) or get entangled in it (leading to suffocation or serious handicaps).

Lastly, it’s not easy for us normal folks to stop the Navy from doing high-intensity sonar-training exercises under water. That said, we can sign petitions that forces the Navy to use more whale-friendly technologies (like magnetic sensors and passive sonar) and we can support organizations fighting to regulate the Navy’s activities and what areas they’re allowed to operate in.

If only one person decides to take action, sure it’s just a drop in the ocean. However, if we all take responsibility, imagine the difference we can make! And the amazing thing about noise pollution is that the second we stop making it, all the pollution is GONE.

I recommend watching the documentary Sonic Sea (trailer below) that inspired this post and learning more about our oceans at NRDC.org (Natural Resources Defense Council). You can stand up to ocean noise by signing up here.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a new roadmap last week for addressing ocean noise, under which NOAA would finally begin to manage it, though there are no concrete plans. Read the roadmap here. (The public has until July 1 to comment on it.)

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