Faster sound transmission in the oceans due to climate change will change the underwater soundscape marine organisms rely on for survival and reproduction in coming decades.
24 March 2022
AGU press contact:
Liza Lester, +1 (202) 777-7494, [email protected] (UTC-4 hours)
Alice Affatati, Memorial University of Newfoundland, [email protected] (UTC-2.5 hours)
Chiara Scaini, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale – OGS, Trieste, Italy, [email protected] (UTC+1 hour)
Stefano Salon, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale – OGS, Trieste, Italy, [email protected] (UTC+1 hour)
- Climate change is speeding sound transmission in the oceans and the way it varies over the globe with physical properties of the oceans
- Two “acoustic hotspots” of future sound speed increases are predicted east of Greenland and in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, East of Newfoundland.
- In these locations, the average speed of sound is likely to increase by more than 1.5% if “business-as-usual” high rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue through 2100.
WASHINGTON — Climate change will significantly alter how sound travels underwater, potentially affecting natural soundscapes as well as accentuating human-generated noise, according to a new global study that identified future ocean “acoustic hotspots.” These changes to ocean soundscapes could impact essential activities of marine life.
In warmer water, sound waves propagate faster and last longer before dying away.
“We calculated the effects of temperature, depth and salinity based on public data to model the soundscape of the future,” said Alice Affatati, an bioacoustics researcher at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John’s, Canada, and lead author of the new study, published today in Earth’s Future, AGU’s journal for interdisciplinary research on the past, present and future of our planet and its inhabitants. It is the first global-scale estimate of ocean sound speed linked to future climate.
Two hotspots, in the Greenland Sea and a patch of the northwestern Atlantic Ocean east of Newfoundland, can expect the most change at 50 and 500 meter depths, the new study projected. The average speed of sound is likely to increase by more than 1.5%, or approximately 25 meters per second (55 miles per hour) in these waters from the surface to depths of 500 meters (1,640 feet), by the end of the century, given continued high greenhouse gas emissions (RCP8.5).
“The major impact is expected in the Arctic, where we know already there is amplification of the effects of climate change now. Not all the Arctic, but one specific part where all factors play together to give a signal that, according to the model predictions, overcomes the uncertainty of the model itself,” said author Stefano Salon, a researcher at the National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics in Trieste, Italy.
The ocean soundscape is a cacophony of vibrations produced by living organisms, natural phenomena like waves and cracking ice, and ship traffic and resource extraction. Sound speed at 50 meters depth ranges from 1,450 meters per second in the polar regions to 1,520 meters per second in equatorial waters (3,243 to 3,400 miles per hour, respectively).
Many marine animals use sound to communicate with each other and navigate their underwater world. Changing the sound speed can impact their ability to feed, fight, find mates, avoid predators and migrate, the authors said.
In addition to the notable hotpots around Greenland and in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean, the new study found a 1% sound speed increase, more than 15 meters per second, at 50 m in the Barents Sea, northwestern Pacific, and in the Southern Ocean (between 0 and 70E), and at 500 m in the Arctic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and southern Caribbean Sea.
Temperature, pressure with increasing depth and salinity all affect how fast and how far sound travels in water. In the new study, the researchers focused on hotspots where the climate signal stood out clearly from the model uncertainty and was larger than seasonal variability.
The new study also modeled common vocalizations, under the projected future conditions, of the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species inhabiting both north Atlantic acoustic hotspots. The whales’ typical “upcall” at 50 Hertz is likely to propagate farther in a warmer future ocean, the researchers found.
“We chose to talk about one megafauna species, but many trophic levels in the ocean are affected by the soundscape or use sound,” Affatati said. “All these hotspots are locations of great biodiversity.”
Future work will combine the global soundscape with other maps of anthropogenic impacts in the oceans to pinpoint areas of combined stressors, or direct needed observational research.
“With complicated problems like climate change, to combine different approaches is the way to go,” said author Chiara Scaini, an environmental engineer at the National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics.
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Notes for Journalists:
Earth’s Future is an open access journal. Download a PDF copy of the paper here. Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.
“Ocean sound propagation in a changing climate: Global sound speed changes and Identification of Acoustic Hotspots”
- Alice Affatati, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale – OGS (National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics – OGS), Trieste, Italy; and Department of Ocean and Naval Architectural Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s, Canada.
- Chiara Scaini and Stefano Salon, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale – OGS (National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics – OGS), Trieste, Italy