Putting Ocean Acoustics on the stage to address climate change

Kyle M. Becker – kyle.becker1@navy.mil

co-chair, Interagency Working Group on Ocean Sound and Marine Life (IWG-OSML)
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Thomas C Weber – member, IWG-OSML, Washington, DC
Heather Spence – co-chair, IWG-OSML, Washington, DC
Grace C Smarsh – Executive Secretary, IWG-OSML, Washington, DC

Popular version of 1aAB9 – Ocean Acoustics and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development
Presented at the 184 ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0018031

The Acoustic Environment is, collectively, the combination of all sounds within a given area modified by interactions with the environment. This definition includes both the sounds of nature and human use and is used by the US National Park Service as a basis for characterizing, managing, and preserving sound as one of the natural resources within the park system. Thinking in terms of a theatre, the Acoustic Environment is where scenes emerge from the interaction of individual actors (or sources) with all other aspects of the stage (the environment). The audience (or receiver) derives information from a continuous series of actions and interactions that combine to tell a story. In developing the Ocean Decade Research Programme on the Maritime Acoustic Environment (OD-MAE https://tinyurl.com/463uwjk5) we applied the theatre analogy to underwater environments, where acoustic scenes result from the dynamic combination of physical, biological, and chemical processes in the ocean that define the field of oceanography. In the science of Ocean Acoustics, these highly intertwined relationships are reflected in the information available to us through sound and can be used as a means to both differentiate among various ocean regions and tell us something – stories – about processes occurring within the oceans. The use of sound for understanding the natural environment is particularly effective in the oceans because underwater sound travels very efficiently over large distances, allowing us to probe the vast expanses of the globe. As an example of this, the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is capable of monitoring nearly the entire volume of the world’s oceans for underwater nuclear explosions with only eleven underwater acoustic listening stations.

In the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (oceandecade.org), the OD-MAE program seeks to raise awareness about and support research related to the information available through sound that reflects the regional ocean environment and its state. For example, the noisiest places in the ocean have been found to be in Alaskan and Antarctic fjords where sound energy levels created by the release of trapped air by melting ice exceed that of many other sources, including weather and shipping[1]. Sound energy increases with melt rate as more bubbles are released, providing information about the amount of fresh water being added into the oceans along with other climate indicators.

Representative glacial environment. Image credit: National Park Service

Ambient Sound recorded near Hubbard and Turner Glaciers near Yakutat, AK. Credit: Matthew Zeh, Belmont University and Preston Wilson, Univ. of Texas at Austin

Similarly, in warmer climates, the acoustic environment of coral reefs can provide scientists an indication of a reef system’s health. Healthy reef systems support much more life and as a result more sound is produced by the resident marine life. This is evident when contrasting the sounds recorded at a healthy reef system to those recorded at a location that experienced bleaching owing to increased water temperature and climate change[2].

Representative healthy and degraded reef systems. Image credits NOAA

Sound of representative healthy reef system. Credit: Steve Simpson, University of Bristol, UK

Sound of representative degraded reef system. Credit: Steve Simpson, University of Bristol, UK

As a research program, the OD-MAE seeks to quantify information about the acoustic environment such that we can assess the current state and health of the oceans, from shallow tropical reefs to the very deepest depths of the ocean. Telling the stories of the ocean by listening to it will help provide knowledge and tools for sustainably managing development and even restoring maritime environments[3].


[1] Pettit, E. C., Lee, K. M., Brann, J. P., Nystuen, J. A., Wilson, P. S., and O’Neel, S. (2015), Unusually loud ambient noise in tidewater glacier fjords: A signal of ice melt. Geophys. Res. Lett., 42, 2309– 2316. doi: 10.1002/2014GL062950.
[2] https://artsandculture.google.com/story/can-we-use-sound-to-restore-coral-reefs/ RgUBYCe8v8Ol0Q [last visited 5.3.2023]
[3] Williams, B. R., McAfee, D., and Connell, S. D.. 2021. Repairing recruitment processes with sound technology to accelerate habitat restoration. Ecological Applications 31( 6):e02386. 10.1002/eap.2386

Featured Image Credit: National Park Service