Marine scientist Christopher Clark has spent his career listening in on what he calls “the song of life” in the world’s oceans. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains how these marine habitats are under assault from extreme—but preventable— underwater noise pollution.
Bowing to public and fishing industry pressure, the Obama administration recently reversed an earlier decision to allow oil drilling off the U.S. East Coast. But the five-year moratorium on drilling does not prohibit exploratory seismic air gun surveys used to locate oil and gas reserves in rock layers under the seabed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to authorize those surveys this spring.
Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark says the acoustical testing — which can go on for weeks, with powerful explosions being continually detonated — will only add to the rising din in the oceans. “Imagine that every 10 seconds there is an explosion that is rattling grandma’s china out of the cupboard, and it is falling on the floor,” says Clark, who notes that the testing can fill whole ocean basins with “one big storm of noise.”
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Clark explains how noise pollution, most of it from ship traffic, severely disrupts marine life, especially among whales, which communicate and orient themselves through sound. He laments what he calls the “acoustical bleaching” of the oceans, a human-made cacophony that can tear apart the social networks of whales, adversely affecting survival and reproductive success. Science is only just beginning to understand this threat. But the good news, says Clark, is that technologies are being developed to drastically reduce the noise from ships and geological surveying. All that’s needed, he says, is the will to make the change.
Yale Environment 360: The knowledge of underwater sound has exploded in recent decades. It’s a whole different way of understanding the ocean, isn’t it?
Chris Clark: Recently we heard sounds — it was more like an amorphous cloud of noise —coming from a particular area, and it turns out that we were listening to millions and millions of sea urchins feeding on rocks, where they create a rasping sound as they scrape off the algae. As our listening technologies continue to develop, I expect we’ll soon be able to hear the breathing of the planet from the aggregate rise and fall of billions of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the ocean as they move up and down in their daily cycle of life.
Song is what the world does. From the tiniest bugs sitting on branches where the males are singing to attract females and establish their territories, to birds and frogs and whales, the planet is singing. And this is doubly true in the oceans.