New Shipping Traffic Consequence: Extreme Noise Is Hurting Our Endangered Whales

By Anthony Smith on August 17, 2012 2:42 PM EDT

Whale
Whales (Photo: Creative Commons)

According to a new report from researchers at Cornell University, exponentially increasing amounts of underwater noise caused in large part by human shipping traffic, is surrounding some of the rarest species of right whales in what scientists have called "acoustic smog"-- noise pollution that makes it so much more difficult for whales to communicate with one another.

Think about the last time there were construction workers drilling outside your office. Now, multiply that noise by ten, and have it follow you wherever you go twenty-four seven. Make it so loud, in fact, that you can't hear your family talking to you, or even the sound of your own thoughts. That's what our endangered right whale species are going through.

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What's worse for these notoriously sing-happy mammals is that they rely so much more on sound, rather than sight, to maintain contact. So this deafness from the noise of acoustic smog is actually more of a blinding for them.

A paper published by federally funded scientists and researchers from Cornell University last Wednesday contains the rough estimate that, throughout the last 50 years, the area wherein whales could most effective communicate in Stellwagen Bank, as well as the nearby waters just off the coast of Massachusetts, has decreased by approximately two-thirds because of the man-made noise.

According to these researchers, the noise from acoustic smog is hampering the mammals' ability to communicate important information that helps them locate food, dodge predators, reproduce, and defend their offspring.

Naturally, that spells disaster all around.

"Basically, the whales off Boston now find themselves living in a world full of our acoustic smog," contends Christopher Clark, co-author of the study and director of Cornell's bioacoustics research program.

What's the solution? According to Kathy Metcalf, a member of the Chamber of Shipping of America, recommends that drawing up and implementing noiseless designs in the hulls and propellers of their newer ships is probably the way to go.

"We're kind of a slow industry," confessed Metcalf, "But the bottom line is if we could do something now that can be used as guidelines for new construction, 15 years from now, half the world's fleet would have already been built that way."

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