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The Green Life: Quieting the Not-So-Silent Abyss

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June 20, 2011

Quieting the Not-So-Silent Abyss

Up here on the surface, Noise-making boat bustling traffic and ambient chatter turn day-to-day living into a noisy affair. But whereas too much noise can be a nuisance to us, it can be lethal to the creatures of the ocean.

The low-frequency bellows of whales, often called "songs," aren't just meant to please the ears (though they're available for purchase on iTunes). Whales, as well as other animals of the deep, depend on sonic communication to locate prey, predators, peers, and potential mates. It comes as no surprise, then, that the noisy pings emitted by the U.S. Navy's low-frequency sonar, which blanket at least 1.5 million square miles of open ocean in sound, can have major repercussions for aquatic species.

The first step in quieting the seas? Cartography. French company Quiet Oceans developed a computer program, called Quonops, that uses oceanographic modeling to predict how sound waves produced by ships will propagate across the seafloor. Once the acoustics of the abyss are known, the company claims, shipping routes and sonar test locations can be altered to reduce damage to sonically sensitive animals.

Given that the world's oceans are pretty darn big, however, this approach to oceanic noise pollution is rather ambitious. In the meantime, groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and NRDC are lobbying to have superfluous sound recognized as a pollutant.

Want to help turn down the volume? Make some noise.

--Colin Griffin

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