The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Sonic Sea: Sounding the Alarm on Ocean Noise
Beneath the surface of our oceans lies a finely balanced, living world of sound, most of which we never hear topside. But to whales, dolphins and other marine life, sound is survival, the key to how they navigate, find mates, hunt for food, communicate over vast distances and protect themselves against predators in waters dark and deep.
Our oceans, though, have become vast junkyards of industrial noise — often louder than a rock concert — from commercial shipping, military sonar and seismic blasts that test for oil and gas. The seas have become so loud, in places, that these great animals are drowning in noise that threatens their health, their future and their very lives.
On May 19, the Discovery Channel will premiere an important new Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) film that documents this shattering underwater peril. Sonic Sea calls on us to turn down the volume before it’s too late.
Naval sonar drills leave whales disoriented and impaired. They can go silent and abandon their habitat and some even become stranded and die in a desperate bid to escape torturous noise. Watermen report entire populations of fish vanishing across broad ocean regions after oil and gas seismic blasting. And in a world where a staggering 60,000 commercial tanker and container ships are plying the seas at any given time, each one as loud as a nearby thunderstorm to area marine life in the area, the onslaught of undersea noise has become relentless, doubling roughly every decade.
For animals that live by what they hear, more and more of our oceans are sounding like the factory floor: too loud for conversation at the center of their life. North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Boston regularly lose up to 80 percent of their communications range, their ability to process sound drowned out by commercial shipping. And it’s getting harder to find sanctuary — anywhere.
To the future of marine life worldwide, deafening noise is hardly the only threat. It is compounding the stress ocean life faces a growing litany of environmental ills.
Climate change is raising ocean temperatures, threatening coral reefs. When we burn coal, gas and oil, we put carbon pollution in the air. Much of that carbon settles into our seas, raising the acidity of global waters in a process called ocean acidification, impairing the ability of shellfish to grow strong shells. On top of all that, our seas are confronting chronic overfishing, chemical pollution, oil and gas production and a global tide of plastic waste.
By compromising the ability of whales, dolphins and other marine life to feed, reproduce and protect themselves, ocean noise is undermining the natural resiliency species need to cope with these other threats.
The sea is where life on Earth begins. If our oceans die, we won’t survive. And here’s the thing: Ocean noise is a problem we can solve. Like a summer night when the fireworks end, our oceans return to their natural soundscape when we turn down the noise. That’s what NRDC has been working to do for the past two decades, standing at the forefront of the fight against ocean noise worldwide.
Last year, we won a court settlement to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from powerful sonar during routine U.S. Navy tests and exercises off the coasts of Hawaii and Southern California. Naval security and readiness remain sound. We don’t have to harm or kill some of the most majestic creatures on Earth to safeguard our seas and shores.
We’ve also sued the oil and gas industry over seismic blasting that threatens marine life, winning important improvements in the way such testing is done in places like the Gulf of Mexico. And we helped persuade the United Nations International Maritime Organization to adopt guidelines for reducing low-frequency ocean noise from commercial ships. There’s far more, though, that we must do.
Better shipping technology and practices, changes in military exercises and tests and stronger safeguards against seismic blasting at sea can all go a long way toward reining in the acoustic assault on our oceans. And we need forward-looking action plans from the U.S. Navy, the Interior Department, the Transportation Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agencies that produce or manage noise in the sea.
To quiet the world’s waters, though, we all need to raise our voices. That’s what Sonic Sea is all about: increasing awareness of this growing threat and building a worldwide community of citizen advocates to help us turn down the volume on undersea noise.
The award-winning film is narrated by Oscar-nominated actress Rachel McAdams. It features interviews with the Grammy award-winning musician and environmental activist Sting, as well as the renowned oceanographic explorers and educators Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It was produced by NRDC and Imaginary Forces in association with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Diamond Docs. And it was directed and produced by NRDC’s multimedia and film director, Daniel Hinerfeld, along with Michelle Dougherty, a director with Imaginary Forces.
I hope you’ll join me in tuning in to watch this documentary on the Discovery Channel May 19. Then, together, let’s speak up to turn down the noise that threatens our oceans — and threatens us all.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
- CA wildfire season: Will rain, snow weather forecast end risk? | The ... ›
- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›
A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?