Arctic & Antarctica
Whole Southern Ocean ecosystems, and individual marine species — from krill to whales — are impacted by vessels that fish, conduct seismic research, transport tourists and more. (Graphic: Righard Kapp)

ANTARCTICA - Revealed: Inside Antarctica’s brutal, lingering noise war on marine life (Part One)

Listen to this article 0:00 / 25:23 1X BeyondWords In Part One of this investigation, Our Burning Planet reveals the disturbing impacts of underwater noise in a globally critical — but existentially threatened — ocean refuge. In our upcoming sequel, we expose the yearslong failure by Antarctic states to stop the ongoing suffering that may be experienced by an array of vulnerable species.

For decades, state officials, tourists, scientists and fisheries have noisily pushed into a sound-sensitive, ice-bound wilderness where some of Earth’s most endangered and iconic animals seek refuge.

As the world’s polar vessels descend on the Southern Ocean for yet another summer of scientific research, fishing and sightseeing, Antarctica’s protected species may again have to pay the ultimate price.

Wrapping around the bottom 10% of the globe, Antarctica and its Southern Ocean are widely hailed as Earth’s only natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Five times bigger than Australia, it is a hostile, achingly beautiful place that also embraces the global climate engine within its Circumpolar Current.

Yet, for nearly 25 years, Antarctic state officials charged with protecting this reserve have been aware of the human noise war raging below the surface of the Southern Ocean. While these actors have yet to propose “breakthrough” action after secretive, closed-door talks — sometimes failing to discuss the problem for years at a time — unique marine species such as emperor penguins, blue whales, elephant seals, colossal squid and even seafloor creatures may suffer substantial stress and harassment when thousands of humans sail into their home every summer.

Now a pioneering review study, which has not been previously reported, details the searing blows of Southern Ocean noise pollution — and reveals why another summer of misery may await the species of this uniquely rich wilderness.

Led by Curtin University in Perth, the peer-assessed review study is the first of its kind, highlighting limited findings by the small number of bioacoustics experts to have probed noise across species in the faraway Southern Ocean.

This whodunit, therefore, is still unfolding, highlighting the urgent need for more research. Yet it reflects a growing body of evidence of sensory distress in the Southern Ocean — which may be as severe as hearing loss, injury and death.

This Our Burning Planet investigation also helps unravel a chilling truth: just how deadly “peace” in Antarctica can be.

Natural orchestra — populations under threat

Sound is how the inky ocean sees.

Guided by natural music coursing beneath the waves, marine species use their hearing more than any other sense to find mates, feed, navigate, avoid hazards, and more.

Yet, the rogue’s gallery of human noise that seems to be infecting the Southern Ocean is likely to cause “acute to chronic impacts” in species ranging from “tiny zooplankton to enormous whales”, says the review study, which is published in a policy-information portal managed by the influential Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). These disturbing effects can disrupt feeding, reduce prey and plague reproduction.

Indeed, when the sun creeps into the Antarctic’s dark waters late August every year, legions of government personnel, scientists and tourists soon follow, chasing the brief window of warmer summer temperatures between October and March. And when those crowds take off, they haul with them a cacophony of vessels and scientific equipment that could be overwhelming, and possibly killing, the Southern Ocean’s natural orchestra.

Damage across sound frequencies may be felt most severely by Antarctica’s 20-odd marine mammals — including top predators such as killer whales and leopard seals — thought to have evolved some of the highest auditory sensitivity among ocean life.

Whole populations could be disturbed, specifically in areas that are important to them.  

“Chronic exposure” even to lower types of noise — which rips through water almost five times faster than air — could lead to permanent hearing loss, say the review authors.

Representing universities and agencies in Australia and the US, the authors have also relied on international studies from a range of institutions about similar species that do not occur in the Antarctic.

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