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Lillian Yang 66463068

Effect of Underwater Noise on Marine Life


Introduction Life underwater is vastly different from life on land. Due to the limited availability of light in the oceans, one important difference is that hearing, rather than vision, has become the most vital sense for the survival of many underwater organisms. The increasing exploitation of the ocean, as a method of transportation, a source of oil beneath the ocean bed, a suitable location for building wind farms, and other largely industrial human activities, has led to detrimental levels of noise pollution. These problematic levels of noise pollution have been evinced by the incidents of stranded whales following the deployment of active sonar in Greece (1996), the Bahamas (2000), and the Canary Islands (2002), evoking rightful concern from international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). In the past decade, research has uncovered further evidence of the negative effects of underwater noise pollution. Studies suggest that activities such as seismic exploration, shipping, tourism, and offshore construction can cause behavioural changes, avoidance, injury, and even death. It must be noted that the scope of these studies are currently still limited to a small proportion of marine species, regions, and durations. As levels of human activity on and in the oceans is increasing steadily, research and the dissemination of knowledge on the topic of underwater noise pollution is of present importance. An Overview of Underwater Sound The ambient noise underwater involves three main components. The first layer of sound is physical it is caused by wind, waves, rain, the sea floor, and icebergs. The next layer of sound is biological this is caused by marine life as organisms hunt, hide,

communicate, and perform other such activities. The last layer of sound is anthropogenic these man-made sounds in the ocean are created by the constant passing of ships, which spread long-lasting and far-reaching low frequency sounds throughout the ocean (Mitson, R., 1995). The ocean, however, is not one continuous, homogeneous sound field it is bordered by coastlines, its surface is battered by winds, and its floor is lined with shifting peaks, valleys, and sediments of ranging composition. As sound moves through the sea water, its speed varies with density, temperature, and salinity. Sound moves much more quickly in sea water than in air, travelling at around 1,500 m/s (compared to 340 m/s in air), regardless of frequency (Hatch, L. & Wright, A., 2007). Just as sound is measured in decibels (dB) on land, it is also measured in decibels underwater. However, whereas the reference level in air is 2x10-5 Pa, the reference level underwater is 1x10-6 Pa. Thus, if a sound in air has the same intensity as another sound that is in water, they will actually differ by 61.5 dB when measured in decibels. This difference is partially due to the unequal reference levels, but it is also a result of the difference in density and sound speed in the two mediums. Consequently, sound travels farther and more quickly in sea water than in air (Hatch, L. & Wright, A., 2007). In the oceans background noise, frequencies in the range of 0.02-20 Hz (infrasound) are mostly caused by movements of the ocean floor, 20-500 HZ are caused by distant ships, 500-100,000 Hz are caused by whipping waves, and 100,000+ Hz are caused by the random shuffling of water molecules (DOSITS, 2009). Over top of this, marine organisms, such as whales, fish, and snapping shrimp, create sounds in an

immense range of frequencies from around 10-200,000 Hz. In areas of greater marine animal activity, the ambient sound level can increase by 25 dB re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 metre due to said activity. Massive blue whales emit calls, which can travel hundreds of miles, and that are in the 10-25 Hz range. Tiny snapping shrimp create bursts of sound in the range of 2,000-15,000 Hz. Underwater Hearing To get a sense of the loudness of these marine mammal noises, consider the following: the average broadband source level (re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m) for Bottlenose Dolphin whistles is 149 DB, for Humpback Whale songs is159 dB, for Blue Whale moans is 172 dB, for Humpback Whale fluke and flipper slaps is 188 dB, and for Sperm Whale clicks is 200 dB. Oimatsu et al. created the following air SPL versus water SPL graph based on human hearing. We can see from the graph that the 159 dB re 1x10-6 Pa Humpback whale song, for example, would sound like 80 dB re 2x10-5 Pa in air to a human listener.

During the 1950s, the famous marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau, dubbed the ocean as The Silent World, and this remains a misconception amongst laypeople. As

sound does not pass easily through the water-air barrier, we only hear the swishing of the waves on the surface as we stand above the water (Hatch, L. and Wright, A.). For a layperson, the soundtrack of the ocean is a low and soothing rumble, but beneath the waters surface is an abundance of acoustic activity that supports the navigation, object location, and communication of various life forms. By thirty metres into the water, there is no longer enough light to support colour vision, thus marine mammals have evolved sophisticated hearing systems. Cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, use three times as many neurons for hearing than all other animals and have highly developed temporal lobes which are able to derive large amounts of information from auditory signals (IFAW, 2008). Using active sonar, cetaceans transmit sound signals which reflect upon hitting objects and are picked up by the source animal, which can gather information such as size and distance from the quality and timing of the returning signal (DOSITS, 2009). Sound is thus the most important underwater signal, carrying information on partners, prey, landscapes, and facilitating communication. Unfortunately, noise pollution from ships has been doubling every decade since 1970, due to a greater number of more powerful ships being built and employed, and international experts agree that the noise levels may be reaching dangerous levels (IFAW, 2008). What Is Causing Marine Noise Pollution? Reports on marine noise pollution have converged on three main causes of harmful noise levels in the ocean. The first is commercial shipping, which has already caused a10-15 dB increase in the oceans low frequency background noise level. It is the propellers that generate the most noise, but motors and gears contribute to the noise

pollution as well. As propeller blades spin, bubbles form in areas of lower pressure and then implode, creating loud bursts. Overall, individual ships contribute around 170 dB re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m of noise at under 200 Hz for large ships, but possibly reaching 40,000 Hz at high speeds (Hatch & Wright, 2007). The next problem is the use of mid-frequency sonars. Although the mechanisms of this disturbance are unclear, the use of these sonars has been spatially and temporally correlated to several beachings, especially of the Cuviers beaked whales species (see Appendix A). Mid-frequency sonars can reach 237 dB re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m and operate at 2,000-8,000 Hz, depending on the model. There is also concern about possible interference from the low frequency sonar, SURTASS-LFA (surface towed low frequency active sonar) as it operates at the frequencies 100 - 500 Hz, which includes those frequencies generated by most whales. More research has to be done on this topic, although the military nature of this equipment means that such research will be and has been subjected to confidential restrictions (Hatch & Wright, 2007). Then there is the use of airgun arrays in geographic surveys, both for academic purposes (such as exploring and mapping areas) and commercial purposes (such as searching for oil and gas sources). Airgun arrays produce sound pressure levels of around 260 dB re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m and mostly within the range of 10-100 Hz, but with broadband energy reaching 15,000 Hz. Geographic surveys of this nature are highly disruptive because the airguns must fire signals at the ocean floor every 7-20 seconds and a survey can last for days (Hatch & Wright, 2007). As with shipping, the noise pollution from geographic surveys travels long distances, because of the low frequency nature of the sound. This is a notable issue because low frequencies tend to cause masking over a

wide range of frequencies, thus creating long range interference to signals created by the oceans inhabitants. The long range interference spreads quickly, as sound travels more quickly underwater than through air, giving organisms little chance of escape from any damage, confusion, or stress the anthropogenic sounds may be creating. Extent of the Problem So what level of damage, confusion, or stress are the anthropogenic sounds causing? The reality is that there is such a dearth of research in this area that any hearing damage, such as temporary threshold shifts, permanent threshold shifts, or loss of hearing tissue cannot be linked to human noise pollution with certainty. While the correlation between the observed problems (behavioural changes, beaching deaths, and damaged hearing) and human noise pollution is rational and convincing, it is not scientifically solid. There are implicit experimental constraints to working in the ocean. It is such a large scale that spurious factors are hard to control. As well, the subjects of interest are often immense in size and difficult to gather, thus limiting the population sample size. Studying individuals or a few individuals makes it difficult to assess effects at the population level, which is really what we are concerned with. Questions like: will the pod be able to remain a healthy size? Or is the population significantly changing its communication patterns? Furthermore, the auditory systems of most marine mammals, and certainly the smaller marine organisms, are poorly understood. Only recently in 2010 did researchers decipher the auditory pathway in the Cuviers beaked whale, the species most commonly found beached after military sonar activities. That said, there is evidence that marine mammals are fighting to communicate. Killer whales have complex acoustic communication and may use such to coordinate

hunting. However, in the presence of human noise pollution, such as from whale watching boats, they make abnormally lengthy calling signals (IFAW, 2008). When subject to the low frequency noise disturbances that are rapidly increasing in the ocean, right whales shift their call frequencies upwards by 25 Hz to move their calls outside of the noise band. Normally, the haunting moan of the blue whale can be heard 1000 km away, but add the interference of shipping noise and that impressive range drops to roughly 10 km (Tyack, P., 2010). A study on humpback whale songs used stimuli of the 150-230 Hz and 260-320 Hz ranges starting from 155 db re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m to under 205 dB re 1x10-6 Pa at 1 m, finding that the whales sang for longer after being exposed to louder stimuli, especially 1 to 2 hours after the last stimulus. Decreasing the range and efficiency at which marine mammals can communicate is highly detrimental to their ability to communicate or find mates. Even seals, which still rely on vision as their dominant sense may be affected, being less able to keep contact with their pups or find mates (IFAW, 2008). Various ocean creatures exhibit avoidance behaviors in the presence of loud underwater sounds, including sea turtles and fish. The issue is that some species of whales, such as Gray Whales, have been shown to leave their breeding sites for years, only returning years after the noise stops. Some will leave preferred feeding sites as well such as an act is costly to an animals energy reserves (IFAW, 2008). Studies have also shown that fish are less successful in spawning after exposure to airgun noise (Mitson, R., 1995). Thinking Ahead and Acting

Research tends to focus on the larger, more relatable sea creatures such as dolphins and killer whales, but disrupting the simpler life forms at the bottom of the food chain tends to have dramatic effects on entire systems. How noise pollution effects these creatures is a grossly untouched subject. Consider that ocean reefs have sound signatures (characterized by factors such as density of materials and rugosity) and that fish larvae may use these sound signatures to choose the best location to stay in (Kennedy, E., 2007). It is reasonable to imagine that increases in SPL may distort the sound signatures of the reefs, preventing the fish larvae to choose the ideal habitat, thus diminishing their chance of survival. While research is lacking, it is clear that sound is important to marine life and that we should take measures to reduce our interference to this vital sensory signal. The information that sound provides is crucial to countless underwater species and so the effects of ocean noise pollution permeates the whole system. Levels of ocean noise pollution have reached a point where current action is important. Fortunately, international players are recognizing the problem. The UN Secretary-General notes it as one of the 10 main current and foreseeable impacts on marine biodiversity (IFAW, 2008). There is technology available that allows us to reduce noise pollution by impressive amounts, but it is up to the commercial shippers, the military, and other ocean users to adopt these technologies. For ships, better propeller design can reduce noise by 90%, insulation and isolation of machinery from the hull can reduce noise by 99%, and simply driving more slowly can reduce noise pollution (Tyack, P., 2010). Laws can be put in place to ensure the protection of migration routes, feeding sites, and breeding grounds at times of the year when they are being used. Munitions can

be neutralized prior to disposal into the ocean, rather than the current practice of controlled explosions). Insulation or innovative techniques can be used for pile driving (OSPAR, 2010). These are all practical, manageable solutions that should be recommended with the accompaniment of education on the effects of underwater noise on marine life.

Appendix A

Beached Cuviers beaked whale being prepared for investigation. - WHOI

References Carder A., et al., Auditory and behavioral responses of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) and a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) to impulsive sounds resembling distant signatures of underwater explosions, Acoustical Society of America, 2000. Clark C., Hatch L., Fistrup M., Variation in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) song length in relation to low-frequency sound broadcasts, Acoustical Society of America, 2003. Constantine R., Effects of tourism on marine mammals in New Zealand, Department of Conservation (New Zealand), 1999. DOSITS (Discovery of Sound in the Sea), Sounds in the Sea. Hatch L., Wright A., A Brief Review of Anthropogenic Sound in the Oceans, International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 2007. IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), Ocean Noise: Turn it down A report on ocean noise pollution, 2008. Kennedy E., Singing reefs: an investigation into the acoustic environment of the Las Perlas archipelago, Panama, Masters thesis in Marine Resource Development and Protection for the Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology, 2007. Mitson R., Underwater Noise of Research Vessels Review and Recommendations, International Council for the Exploration of the Sea Cooperative Research Report, 1995.

Oimatsu, K., Kuramoto, K., Kuwahara, S. and Yamaguchi, S., Equal-loudness Contours in Water and Its Depth Dependence, Maritime Safety Academy, 1997).

OSPAR Commission Quality Status Report 2010 Underwater Noise chapter. ScienceDaily staff (materials from University of California), Researchers Develop Simulation to Better Understand the Effects of Sound on Marine Life, 2010. Tyack P., How sound from human activities affects marine mammals, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 2008. Yamamoto S., Effects of Noise of Offshore Oil and Gas Operations on Marine Mammals An Introductory Assessment, Naval Ocean Systems Center Research Report, 1982.