Ocean Soundscape Atlas

photo of dolphins

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Authors:   Project Team

Underwater noise generated by human activity such as shipping can have substantial impact on marine life, for example, it may reduce the distance across which whales are able to communicate or restrict the regions in which species that rely on echolocation for detecting pray are able to hunt. With increased shipping activity along traditional shipping routes and opening of new shipping routes in the Arctic, Canadian waters are becoming more noisy than the used to be, and it is imperative that we undestand the extent to which this is impacting marine life so that preventive measures can be taken where necessary. To aid these efforts, MERIDIAN is developing a Soundscape Atlas, that is, a dynamic three-dimensional map (latitude, longitude and depth) of the noise levels in Canadian waters. The Atlas relies on AIS data to track the whereabouts of all major ships in Canadian waters and uses bathymetry data and a realistic physical model to compute the spreading of the noise generated by each ship as that noise propagates through the water column and is reflected of the sea bottom and surface. The Soundscape Atlas will be a highly useful resource for Canadian researchers studing the impacts of the increased noise pollution on marine life and will facilitate improved environmental management of Canadian waters.

Average annual noise levels map of the North Atlantic at a depth of 30 meters for the 1/3-octave frequency band centered at 100 Hz provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the US.

Image Credits: Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Duke University (2012)

Authors:   Project Team

Underwater noise generated by human activities such as shipping raises concerns about its potential impact on marine life, for instance, by affecting their ability to navigate, communicate, feed, and reproduce. With increased shipping activity along traditional routes and the opening of new shipping lanes, changes in noise distribution in Canadian waters are expected. The Canadian Species at Risk Act imposes to protect the habitats of endangered species from degradation. It is therefore imperative to better understand and quantify the impacts of shipping noise on marine life, so that adequate and efficient protective measures can be implemented where necessary.

To aid these efforts, MERIDIAN and collaborators are developing a web-based, interactive Ocean Soundscape Atlas that will enable users to visualize and explore modeled noise levels in a multitude of dimensions including latitude, longitude, depth, time, frequency, and source type, and obtain impact risk estimates in areas of interest.

A screenshot image of the current Soundscape Atlas prototype, showing the probability of exceeding 30 dB of noise at a depth of 50 m and a frequency of 16 Hz for the month of January 2013.

The Ocean Soundscape Atlas uses validated physical models to determine the levels of noise in Canadian waters due to shipping activity and geophysical environmental noise sources such as wind and waves. The Atlas will provide a novel interface between researchers, on one hand, and managers, policy makers, and the general public, on the other hand, facilitating the transfer of scientific information from researchers to the public and more generally contributing to an increased ocean literacy. The Atlas will allow managers and policy makers to monitor trends in the state of the ocean acoustic environment, and hence ensure more timely, effective, and efficient marine environmental conservation and management of the valued and especially protected marine species.

As part of this project, we are also developing a new software library to facilitate the modelling of underwater soundscapes, initially focussing on noise created by environmental agents such as waves and rain. The library is written in Python and will be made freely available to the community under the GNU General Public License v3.

Humpback whales feeding in the shipping lanes off the coast of Massachusetts, US. Photo by K. Sardi, Whale Center of New England. Source: NOAA