January 27, 2021
Deep in the pristine waters of the Arctic you can hardly hear a sound. The secluded marine environment is one of the quietest places on Earth. For the beluga whales that call this region home, the silence is bliss. Belugas rely on echolocation to traverse the dark waters on the hunt for food, but the high frequency calls they emit in the process are susceptible to background noise. Unwelcomed sounds can also muffle their attempts to communicate with one another. Quiet is more than a want for belugas; it is key to their survival.
Unfortunately, climate change is threatening the tranquility of the Arctic landscape. Arctic sea ice has shrunk to record breaking levels. Last year, sea ice extent reached its second-lowest level in over 40 years and it is only expected to get worse. A new study has found that Earth’s ice is melting at a rate 57% faster than in the mid-1990s. The dwindling sea ice has led to a drastic rise in Arctic shipping. As the ice gives way, more and more ships are making their way through. This season, the trend is very likely to continue. Russia already has plans to embark on the earliest eastbound voyage through the Northern Sea Route in history. If all goes as expected, the journey will break the record set just last year, by nearly two weeks.
The increased ship traffic will bring more noise to the Arctic soundscape. Loud ships can easily drown out the belugas whistles and clicks, threatening their ability to interact with the unforgiving environment. Last year, researchers monitoring Arctic sounds documented ship noises at the same frequency as the whistles belugas use to communicate. Research has also shown that belugas leave areas when ships are present. The same can be said for other Arctic animals, including beluga prey. A recent study has found that Arctic cod, one of the belugas’ major food sources, also flee when ships approach. The behavior disruptions could mean death for the belugas if they struggle to find further sustenance.
At this point, the future for the belugas is sounding pretty bleak. If Arctic shipping increases as expected, preserving the Arctic soundscape will be near impossible. Researchers will need to be vigilant with monitoring underwater sounds. A call for more slow zones could cut ship noises substantially and should also be considered. Let’s silence Arctic ship noise and protect the belugas.
The Conversation by William Halliday
MSN by Irina Reznik, Anna Shiryaevskaya and Dina Khrennikova