The Circle

The rising tide of underwater noise


In an underwater environment where light is often limited, the acoustic soundscape holds key information for many marine organisms, including those who migrate over great distances in search of food and mates. But as Henriette Schack notes, with human activities increasing in the Arctic, the soundscape is changing—and the effects could be substantial for animals and humans alike.

In this issue

The oceans are filled with natural sounds—but also, increasingly, by human-made noise. There is probably no ocean left in the world that is not affected by noise from industry, shipping or military sonar.

Until recent years, the Arctic was one of the last refuges from such noise. But new access made possible by climate change is increasing both shipping traffic and fossil fuel exploration. The Arctic Sea may soon become a noise-filled basin like all the others, with the same unfortunate impacts on marine life and local communities.

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Infographic: Underwater noise

Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet. Until recently, the Arctic Ocean was a natural “acoustic refuge” for marine animals because it was covered in thick ice for much of the year.

Belén García Ovide

Turning down the volume in Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay

Nestled on the eastern edge of Skjálfandi Bay in northern Iceland, the picturesque town of Húsavík is known as one of the best places in Europe to get a close-up look at whales. In fact, you have a better chance of seeing a whale in Húsavík than any other place in Iceland. Because of the bay’s thriving ecosystem—which is teeming with plankton—humpbacks, minke and blue whales come here to feed from May to October before heading south for the winter to mate. But is the town’s thriving whale-watching industry distressing these magnificent mammals?


Eirik Grønningsæter

Northern bottlenose whales: The mysterious deep divers of Jan Mayen

In the early 2000s, mass strandings of beaked whales during military exercises in temperate and tropical waters put the issue of navy sonar and marine mammals on the map. As Paul Wensveen tells us, recent research expeditions to Jan Mayen, a Norwegian volcanic island in the Arctic ocean, suggest northern bottlenose whales—the beaked whales of the Arctic—are also very sensitive to underwater noise.

Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI)

Regulating underwater noise during pile-driving

Pile driving generates some of the most disruptive underwater noise. We asked Mathias Andersson, a Swedish fish ecologist and bio-acoustician with the Swedish Defence Research Agency, about the current state of pile-driving regulation around the world. Andersson has been studying the impact of sound on marine life for a decade and recently published an extensive review of scientific literature on underwater noise from pile driving and its effects on marine life.

Jack Iqaqrialuk

My community took on the oil industry—and won

Kangiqtugaapik (or Clyde River) is a picturesque community of roughly 1,000 people on the east side of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. The area is home to various sea mammals, including different species of seal, whale and water fowl. But as Jerry Natanine explains, in 2011, the small community’s way of life, food supply and livelihood were threatened—so the town fought back.

New technology aims to help the oil and gas industry avoid marine animals during exploration

Oil and gas exploration is happening throughout the Arctic. With increased sea ice melt due to climate change, the pressures to allow even more industrial activity will only increase, leading to more and more noise in underwater environments. A global water and environment firm has developed software for the oil and gas industry to mitigate those harms—but could the tool ultimately make matters worse?

Two views, same news: Underwater noise is hurting our communities

Toby Anungazuk Jr. and Eben Hopson are from Alaskan towns almost 800 kms (500 miles) apart . They are also almost half a century apart in age. But they have at least one thing in common—their deep concern over what increasing underwater noise is doing to their communities.

IIP Photo Archive

Drowning in noise

The Arctic is undergoing dramatic and radical changes, most obviously in the loss of sea ice and the associated rise in temperature. Some see these changes as opportunities for year-round commercial shipping and ready access to massive fields of oil and gas beneath the seafloor. This could also lead to acoustic industrialization—the loss of one of the most pristine marine environments on this planet—and threaten its magnificent marine life. But as scientist Christopher W. Clark notes, one solution is to create acoustic sanctuaries: places that are still naturally quiet and in which noise-generating activities that perturb that quiet are forbidden.

The Circle is a magazine produced by the WWF Global Arctic Programme. Our goal is to inform decision-makers, scientists and the interested public about Arctic environmental and development issues.
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