Blinded by the Sound

You're at a rockin' party.  You see this guy or gal alone across the room who's reeeeally easy on the eyes, and you would love to say hello.  You start walking over when suddenly, the strobe lights go crazy.

It's like a million camera flash bulbs going off one after another. Blinding, flashing lights overload your senses. It stops after a minute, but by the time your eyes adjust, your potential date has moved off, whereabouts unknown.

That's what it's like for baleen whales in the modern world of human sonic technologies and shipping lanes. 

Christopher Clark discussed the impacts of sound pollution on whales during the AAAS 2010 sessions on Sunday.  An acoustic ecologist at Cornell, Clark says whale song is the equivalent of visual communication for human beings.  When miles and miles of water separates you from your nearest neighbor or potential mate, singing in very low frequencies is the only way to "see" and talk to one another across a room. 

But like an errant strobe light, sonic energy generated by large ships and petroleum exploration vessels can cancel out a whale's ability to communicate.  This "communication masking" shuts down natural whale behavior across great distances; constant agitation over time may drive out the whales from a region entirely.

Clark's team measures underwater sound waves from ships and whales to paint better pictures of this sonic impact.

These are long-living species, Clark reminded the audience. Activities like sonar and acoustic exploration are relatively new to the world.  Imagine growing up in a quieter world as a teenager, Clark says, then experiencing an increasingly noisy world as an adult.    

Sonic effects on cetaceans is a controversial topic amongst the scientific, industrial, and military communities.  Data like those recorded by Clark's team -- translated into visualizations that humans can relate to -- should add more food for thought to this conversation.