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Ocean Noise: Is Human Activity Raising Volume In 'Silent' Underwater World?

A 10-year UNESCO investigation is being launched to measure the effects of human noise pollution on marine creatures, many of which rely on relative silence to find food, seek out mates or avoid predators.

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PARIS – The planet's great oceans – sometimes referred to as the "silent world" – are noisier than we thought. And they're only getting louder. Not only do their inhabitants – marine mammals, but also fish and crustaceans – squeak, click and moan, not only does the sound of rain and the tumult of collapsing icebergs travel very well through water, but more importantly, human activities have increased significantly in recent decades, and could one day become deafening for marine species.

A team of international researchers brought together last week by the Paris-based United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) admitted it was hard to evaluate exactly how threatening the situation is. There are no base measurements, for example, detailing noise levels before the oil and gas industry, off-shore wind farms and jet-skis appeared. Yet it seems clear the environment is changing – and quickly – as increased industrialization turns up the volume in the oceans, posing a possible threat to many marine species that rely mainly on sound to find food, seek out mates or avoid predators.

The team's objective was to establish the grounds for a decade-long program called the International Quiet Ocean, which will involve international cooperation.

"Until now, most oceanic studies did not focus on the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals," admitted one of the events co-chairmen, Ian Boyd from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. "We don't want to bring human activities in the planet's oceans to a halt. But we want to know how to manage them better. Our program will involve informing and advising the public. And if the study happens to show that the impact of underwater industrial noise on marine species is inconsequential, we won't hesitate to say it."

Growing evidence, however, suggests there are indeed consequences to rising underwater noise levels. World container ship, bulk carrier, tanker, ocean liner and ferry traffic has doubled since 1995, while the number of tourists going on leisure cruises has been multiplied by four. And there's also the question of offshore mining, offshore wind farms, desalination facilities, ports, artificial islands.

Enough for the team of specialists to wonder about the amount of order or chaos that will preside over tomorrow's so-called silent world.

Read the full story in French by Martine Valo

Photo - Rachel Elaine

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