Antarctic and arctic sounds rarely heard before

What do you hear when you think of the Arctic and Antarctic?

Ice “singing,” a seal that sounds like it’s in space, and a seismic air gun that thunders like a bomb are some of the noises emitted by two marine acoustic laboratories.

The project presents to the public 50 rarely heard sounds recorded underwater in the polar regions.

It highlights how noisy the oceans are becoming due to increased human activity that is also disrupting marine life.

“These sounds are quite foreign to most people,” explains artist and researcher Dr. Geraint Rhys Whittaker.

Ice shelf collapse

“We probably think we know what the poles sound like, but often that’s just imagined,” adds Dr. Whittaker, who works at the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

The underwater microphones were attached to floats with scientific instruments that were left in the Arctic and Antarctic for about two years.

One of the sounds captured were the calls of the lesser investigated Antarctic seal. Ross seals live in the open sea and on ice that is difficult to reach. The scientists recorded five calls from the creature at different frequencies.

Crabby seals, minke whales, narwhals, and humpback whales were also recorded.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales

It can be difficult to pick up these sounds due to the inhospitable environment and the long distances that animals travel in the regions.

“The difficulty is knowing where the mammals will be because they move and you can’t trust where they will be,” explains Dr. Whittaker.

There was also the thunderous collapse of the ice shelves, a process that is being accelerated in parts of the polar regions by rising temperatures linked to climate change.

The delicate sound of ice “singing” is included in the collection. It is caused by ice moving in the water, or shrinking as the temperature rises and falls, or ice melting and refreezing.

Few people read scientific research published by universities, Dr. Whittaker suggests, and he hopes that hearing the sounds will make people stop and think about the polar oceans. The oceans occupy 71% of the surface of our planet and are very important to preserve life on Earth, but they are seriously affected by climate change.

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising four times faster than in other parts of the world.



The microphones also picked up man-made noise in the oceans, caused by shipping and oil and gas exploration.

Noise pollution from seismic explosions, which are used to explore the seabed, travels great distances and scientists have found that it negatively affects animal life.

The project reveals just how noisy the oceans are, suggests Dr. Whittaker, who says he hopes it highlights the need for laws to reduce noise from shipping and dredging that harm marine life.

Working with the Cities and Memory sound art project, the noises have also been turned into more than 100 compositions put together by musicians highlighting climate change.

“With the Earth’s poles warming faster than the global average, this collection of sounds aims to draw attention to a fascinating but rapidly changing environment, and encourages us to think of ways to preserve it for future generations,” he explains. Stuart Fowkes, founder of Cities and Memory.

Dr. Ilse van Opzeeland, from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Ocean Acoustics Group, hopes that the combination of art and science will help raise awareness.

“A ‘translation’ through art breathes new life into our scientific data that goes beyond a traditional publication or policy document by making it accessible to non-scientists,” he said.

“We must do our best to protect, conserve and restore our planet’s endangered habitats. The interaction of art and science can help by raising awareness and drawing attention to this.”

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