Enter the maze

Sea sounds sink ships

by Peter W McOwan, Queen Mary University of London

A ring of music:  : copyright www.istockphoto.com 19986347

You might think that under the sea things are nice and quiet, but something fishy is going on down there. Our oceans are filled with natural noise. This is called ambient noise and comes from lots of different sources: from the sound of winds blowing waves on the surface, rain, distant ships and even underwater volcanoes. For undersea marine life that relies on sonar or other acoustic ways to communicate and navigate all the extra ocean noise pollution that human activities, such as undersea mining and powerful ships sonars, have caused, is an increasing problem. But it's not only the marine life that is affected by the levels of sea sounds, submarines also need to know something about all that ambient noise.

In the early 1900s the aptly named 'Submarine signal company' made their living by installing undersea bells near lighthouses. The sound of these bells were a warning to mariners about the impending navigation hazards: an auditory version of the lighthouse light.

The Second World War led to scientists taking undersea ambient noise more seriously as they developed deadly acoustic mines. These are explosive mines triggered by the sound of a passing ship. To make the acoustic trigger work reliably the scientists needed to measure ambient sound, or the mines would explode while simply floating in the water. Measurements of sound frequencies were taken in harbours and coastal waters, and from these a mathematical formula was computed that gave them the 'Knudsen curves'. Named after the scientist who led the research these curves showed how undersea sound frequencies varies with surface wind speed and wave height. They allowed the acoustic triggers to be set to make the mines most effective.