Is Man-Made Noise Messing Up the Oceans?

A new study details how human clamor affects life on the seafloor.

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/navalsurfaceforces/5963895929/in/photolist-a61wtT-dfPMt8-aVJBe8-5ebFJK-9EC86E-34B2Zg-8bbHZz-8ZVQxY-6risBE-zBQLR-bZ61EU-oJGkqf-aJtnrV-6fvKv5-7UCJW-6nxHL9-6NU1dh-vPA6pq-xarMSw-3NfjM-cMCJAd-KawtG-b9pRug-85DEKC-85AvEx-a3VfAZ-6mGMjd-kN2jgc-85AvGV-7fyhzv-b6MCvz-kN3J2C-4C2JEk-7Syqv1-sUaAm-72Qpwz-64nssd-pHQAoS-pY8ufQ-5bdjXq-5bdjUu-65xJyz-aR4NtR-5TQ4ex-q1dZDM-egrymc-5E4bHm-9y5cTw-nbyZRq-83JJAd">Naval Surface Warriors</a>/Flickr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


We may imagine the bottom of the deep blue sea as a peaceful, quiet place—certainly compared with the blaring horns and chit-chattering radios of rush-hour traffic. But the ocean is filled with the sounds of undulating waves, marine animals calling out to one another, and, increasingly, the ceaseless din of human commercial activity. Over the past 60 years, our contribution to the undersea cacophony has doubled every decade, and much of that noise is generated close to the shore. Roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers—or 62 miles—of the coast.

The affected creatures “are crucial to healthy and commercially successful oceans because they form the bottom of the food chain.”

A new study in the journal Nature finds that all the racket from our ships and construction activities penetrates deep beneath the surface, not merely messing with the communications of undersea mammals but changing the very nature of life at the bottom. The researchers found that bottom-dwellers such as small clams and lobsters, which are crucial to the underwater ecosystem, alter their behavior when exposed to man-made noise. To put it simply, they don’t move around as much.

Here’s why it matters: These creatures are responsible for churning up sediment when they burrow into the seabed, thus increasing oxygen levels and distributing nutrients. Their waning activity, the study’s authors say, may impact seabed productivity, sediment biodiversity, and even fisheries production. “There has been much discussion over the last decade of the extent to which whales, dolphins and fish stocks, might be disturbed by the sounds from shipping, wind farms, and their construction,” co-author Tim Leighton, an expert in underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton in England, noted in a statement accompanying the paper. “However, one set of ocean denizens has until now been ignored…These are the bottom feeders, such as crabs, shellfish and invertebrates similar to the ones in our study, which are crucial to healthy and commercially successful oceans because they form the bottom of the food chain.”

And these kinds of creatures, unlike fish and dolphins, can’t simply relocate to escape the noise. To maintain healthy oceans, we humans might simply have to keep it down.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest