WASHINGTON – Not only are humans changing the surface and temperature of the planet, but also its sounds – and those shifts are detectable even in the open ocean, according to research published Thursday.
Changes in the ocean soundscape affect wide swaths of marine life, from tiny snapping shrimp to huge right whales, the researchers found.
“Sounds travel very far underwater. For fish, sound is probably a better way to sense their environment than light,” said Francis Juanes, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada and a co-author of the paper in the journal Science.
While light tends to scatter in water, he said, sounds travel much faster through water than through air.
Many fish and marine animals use sound to communicate with each other, to locate promising locations to breed or feed, and possibly to detect predators. For example, snapping shrimp make a sound resembling popping corn that stuns their prey. Humpback whale songs can resemble a violinist’s melodies.
But increased noise from shipping traffic, motorized fishing vessels, underwater oil and gas exploration, offshore construction and other human activity is making it harder for fish to hear each other.
The researchers sifted through thousands of data sets and research articles documenting changes in noise volume and frequency to assemble a comprehensive picture of how the ocean soundscape is changing – and how marine life is impacted.
Using underwater microphones, scientists can record fish sounds – which tend to hover around the same low frequencies as shipping traffic noise.