Naval Noise: Whale of a Problem
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NAVAL NOISE: WHALE OF A PROBLEM
By Noah Shachtman
Thursday, July 25, 2002
The U.S. Navy wants to keep tabs on the seas. But it's facing a whale of a
problem: The technologies it says it needs to spy on enemy subs are so loud
that they can ruin the lives of nearby leviathans, which rely on their ears
like we use our eyes.
Next Monday, lawyers representing the Navy and the National Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) (http://www.thepubliccause.net/index.html) will
square off in U.S. District Court over a program that tests new
sub-detection techniques in coastal waters -- the most heavily populated
part of the oceans.
The technologies operating in these crowded neighborhoods can be
ear-splittingly loud -- more than 238 decibels, according to Navy test
plans. That's 4.3 billion times as loud as the sounds that can cause people
pain, estimates William Wilgus, director of The Public Cause Network. It's
about the equivalent of a Saturn rocket lifting off.
This noise can have disastrous effects on whales in the area. One of the
systems being tested is an adaptation of the "53 C" active sonar, which was
responsible for the March 2000 deaths of at least eight whales in the
Bahamas. Other technologies have been known to wreck whales' abilities to
feed, mate and communicate with one another for thousands of square miles
around, said Michael Jasny, an NRDC senior policy analyst.
"From a biological point of view, it's one of the worst places you can do
these tests," Jasny continued, "because dozens of marine mammal species are
found only in coastal waters, and because many others have their feeding,
mating and breeding grounds there."
The NRDC is demanding that the testing program -- known as "LWAD," short for
Littoral Warfare Advanced Development -- be stopped until a full-blown
environmental review can be done, and environmental guidelines for LWAD can
be set. The government is arguing, in turn, that it already is taking
extraordinary measures to protect marine life, and that the NRDC's case
should be dismissed.
Alex Hill, the deputy manager of the LWAD program at the Office of Naval
Research (http://www.onr.navy.mil/), said the Navy is making "every effort
to ensure there are no environmental effects" from the LWAD tests.
"We prep for months before any test, and most of that is assessing the
environmental impact. While the test is on, the source ship is manned by
marine mammal observers that stop the tests if there's impact on animal
behavior in any way," he continued. "Right now, there are tests going on off
the coast of Scotland. And they have shut down operations multiple times
every day to let mammals leave the area."
"Some in the Navy put a lot of stock in their responsibilities as stewards
of the marine environment," Jasny replied. "But during this administration,
those that want to stonewall and disregard the consequences of their
environmental activities are having the upper hand."
This legal melee is the latest round in a nearly endless fight between the
Navy and environmentalists.
"The Navy has a much bigger environmental problem than the Army or the Air
Force. If you take a look at the U.S. military facilities with the highest
environmental impact questions, it's largely Navy," John Pike, director of
The biggest battles have been over the use of active sonar, which sends out
massive waves of sound to locate targets. Such equipment was blamed for a
1996 mass stranding of beaked whales on the west coast of Greece, as well as
the 2000 Bahamas beaching.
Just last week, the Navy won a controversial exemption from the Marine
Mammal Protection Act to run a powerful low-frequency active sonar, despite
the potential impact on whales' hearing.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy largely relied on passive sonar -- little
more than microphones dropped in the water -- to quietly listen for Soviet
"That changed when we stopped hunting for Red October," Pike said. "Now
we're trying to detect little Iranian electric submarines lurking about in
the Persian Gulf. And they're hard to find. They're very quiet, and they
operate in coastal waters, which are a very acoustically complex
"Before, the Navy was afraid to use active sonar, because the noise would
compromise a ship's location. But the Iranians know we're there anyway."
This shift to active sonar is making the seas a noisier place. But it's only
the continuation of a trend that's been going on for a century and a half.
"There was almost no man-made noise in the ocean before 1850," said
Christopher Fox, a researcher at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
The proliferation of steamships in the mid-19th century changed all that.
And now the ocean -- once as quiet as the North American wilderness before
Columbus came -- is "as noisy as the middle of New York City," Fox said.
Some of the most obnoxious noises come from oil and gas explorers, which
employ a kind of pressurized air gun into the ocean floor to listen for
telltale signs of fossil fuel.
"The sound from air guns operating off Nova Scotia completely overwhelmed
sensors I was using in the Azores (islands in the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean), thousands of miles away," Fox said.
Modified versions of those air guns are among the most prominent of the
technologies being tested in the $6 million per year LWAD program, which is
halfway through an eight-year development cycle.
Also being tried is a new breed of active sonars -- the Navy calls them
"multi-statics" -- that rely on sensors on as many as 15 different ships, as
well as laser and optical-based detection systems.
These "non-acoustic" technologies will be tested off the East Coast next
week if the NRDC doesn't stop the LWAD program in court. The air guns,
active sonars and other noisy LWAD technologies are slated for tests in
October, in waters around either Korea or Japan.
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