Environmentalists contend there is a growing body of evidence that sonar waves at any intensity can harm marine mammals, seriously disrupting their behavior and possibly causing death.
An allegation surfaced recently that La Jolla Scripps Institution of Oceanography is involved with a military proposal to establish a 500-square-mile warfare training range to detect underwater submarines off the North Carolina coast using sonar.
And though the institution denies a connection with the Navy program, officials admit they’re conducting sonar testing of a different sort.
Scripps researcher Peter Worcester confirmed that Scripps, which does global oceanographic research, is using underwater sonar in the North Pacific Acoustic Laboratory, a project studying temperature variations in the North Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.
“Scripps uses underwater sound for a variety of purposes,” said Worcester. “Oceanographers as a whole use sound as a tool to study the ocean and how life in it all works.”
Sound travels well in water, unlike light and radio waves.
“Sound is our only tool for remote sensing,” added Worcester.
The North Pacific sonar project at Scripps involves acoustic thermometry, gauging the variation of water temperature over time by measuring how fast sound waves traverse the ocean. Sonar travels more swiftly in warm water, more slowly in cold.
“This is a project to use very long-range sound transmission to really let us be able to study how ocean temperatures are changing,” said Said Worcester. “We want to keep track of and understand what’s happening to the planet, whether we are causing it or not.”
Worcester of Scripps pointed out tests on ocean warming in the North Pacific thus far have been inconclusive.
“We haven’t been able to see anything that we could call a trend,” he said. “People ask me if the North Pacific is warming up. I tell them we can’t really tell, there’s too much variability from year to year.”
Long-distance sonar testing of the North Pacific has been going on for about a decade. Early indications were the waters between Hawaii and California were warming. But figures from more recent years indicate a reverse of that trend.
“In the space of a few months,” Worcester said, “the ocean north of Hawaii cooled off. I wouldn’t begin to pretend we understand all we’re seeing. But this is exactly the kind of information we need to begin to sort out what happens.”
Institution spokesman Mario Aguilera was clear: “Scripps has no connection to the Navy program.”
The Institution of Oceanography may be off the hook with environmentalists, but the U.S. Navy is under close scrutiny for their planned use of sonar that could threaten whales and other marine mammals.
Michael Jasney, a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the
Navy is considering conducting a sonar underwater submarine detection program off the coast of Southern California, similar to the one being considered for the Atlantic off North Carolina.
“If this is anything like the one they’re planning for the East Coast,” Jasney said, “it would involve a battery of mid-frequency sonar tests, which will essentially turn
Southern California into the epicenter for the use of this dangerous technology.”
La Jolla resident Tanja Winter decried Navy use of underwater sonar activity for submarine detection.
“There is a lot of military stuff that nobody knows about,” she said. “I do know we’ve had a lot of dead whales in different parts of the world washing up on the coast. Whales are extremely sensitive to sound. Our society is overwhelmingly willing to put more money, energy and resources into military solutions, when the military solutions are the big problem. It’s very deceptive.”
The Navy contends sonar is an invaluable tool for national protection, stressing its importance has grown in recent years as more and more nations have acquired inexpensive, very quiet diesel submarines. It claims sonar is the only effective means to detect and target submarines and keep lanes open for commercial ships and oil tankers, as well protecting Naval forces.
The Navy states it spends millions of dollars annually on marine-mammal research to understand the potential effects of manmade sound on marine mammals.