Noise Awareness Day gets wet

Today, April 25 2013 is “International Noise Awareness Day.” Founded in 1996 by the Center for Hearing and Communication it was designed to promote awareness of the dangers of long-term exposure to noise – in humans.

1996 was really just the dawning of public awareness of noise impacts on marine life. The trans-Pacific experimental “Acoustic Thermography of Ocean Climate” (ATOC) had survived public scrutiny and had been broadcasting for a year. While no apparent catastrophic strandings occurred as a result, it was the first deliberate long-term noise exposure imposed on marine life (industrial shipping noise had been increasing globally since the end of WWII).

The public’s concern at the time was that humans were again making assumptions about what marine animals could endure. While the scope of the noise was startling – setting up a communication channel with a reach of 2500 miles, the physics of the channel had likely been used for millions of years by baleen whales, whose vocalizations could be almost as loud as ATOC.

Offshore petroleum extraction operations

While at the time I was as concerned as anyone about this new noise in the ocean I was more concerned that ATOC founder Walter Munk was suggesting that we use the entire ocean as a “Sea Web” – like the internet; so you could put a hydrophone in anywhere and get the news. I knew that this was a bad idea. It was also the idea that spawned the US Navy’s “Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active (LFA)” program, which really got the public up out of their seats.

But it was the Bahamas stranding that occurred during the SURTASS-LFA hearings that put the ocean noise pollution issue on the map – and in the bars, and on the blogs. In the course of naval exercises at their AUTEC range at least 17 beaked whales, one minke, and a spotted dolphin washed ashore. The beaked whales that were analyzed showed signs of massive hemorrhaging around their hearing systems.

The following year the preponderance of research sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) focused on beaked whales. While it was generally good research the cynics among us conservationists felt the Navy was just “stomping out grassfires” in response to a tarnished public opinion rather than systematically evaluating the lager implications of noise on marine habitat.

All things in due time: ONR has funded much more research over the years, and with a much broader brush. It may be unfortunate that they are still the straw dogs for the ocean noise issue. Whenever I mention our work to new acquaintances the first thing they invariably say is “Navy sonar.”

On this day of noise awareness I would like to bring your attention to the exponentially increasing noise from offshore oil and gas operations; from the seismic surveys used for exploration and field characterization, to the constant thrum and hiss of seafloor petroleum processing and thrashing of thruster stabilized drilling platforms.

We don’t really know how the long-term exposure to these noises impacts life in the ocean, but we can be assured that it does. Being aware of the problem is the first step in understanding it – and being able to act on that awareness.