According to a new study, climate change is affecting the soundscape of the ocean by accelerating underwater sounds. As a variety of marine animals depend on communication below the surface, warming oceans could have a direct impact on their survival.
Climate change is warming the oceans all over the world. While warmer water temperatures affect a variety of ecosystems and species, the impact of a changing ocean soundscape has not been widely studied.
While whales and dolphins rely heavily on sound to communicate and socialize, a new study now suggests that warmer ocean temperatures could accelerate underwater sounds, directly affecting marine wildlife.
The team of researchers behind the study analyzed the future consequences of climate change on the propagation of underwater sound by basing their model on a high emissions scenario projected for 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions from greenhouse are not further reduced. They found that warming oceans could accelerate the speed of sound underwater across the world.
Due to physical principles, sound travels faster in warmer water, while sounds also last longer before fading away. Two hotspots for this development have been identified in the Northwest Atlantic and the Greenland Sea where the average speed of sound could increase by more than 1.5% from the current speed. The researchers say the phenomenon could contribute to the “imminent risk of global biodiversity loss” in these hotspots with “major shifts” expected in most seas by the end of the century.
As part of the study, the research team analyzed sound patterns of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only about 350 individuals exist today. Regarding the whale’s echolocation, Alice Affatati, a bioacoustics and underwater noise researcher at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, said: “If it’s distorted, it could have a impact on their eating habits.
The team found that a call from one right whale directed at another would travel farther and faster in a warmer ocean environment. In turn, the whales could be thrown off by the sound changes and could migrate away from their natural habitats as a result. It could also have a direct effect on the food web.
However, some animals might be able to adapt to these new soundscapes by changing their vocal abilities. After all, previous studies have shown that some cetaceans are indeed able to alter their frequencies in noisy environments.
The study is another reminder of how human activity such as ship noise could further affect species and ecosystems in a warming environment.
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Photograph courtesy of Unsplash.