Is loud, industrial noise from underwater drilling affecting these pups? Scientists are on the case.
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Natural Resources Defense Council

A team of scientists recently trained seal pups to execute a series of hearing tests — not unlike the ones you used to take in school.

Instead of raising their hand (or flippers, as it were) to indicate which side the noise is on, the seals are taught to tap a target with their nose when they hear a specific sound. If they get it right, they're rewarded with a delicious fish snack (unlike my doctor, who just scolds me for the umpteenth time about the importance of wearing earplugs at band practice.)

That's kind of what this pup is doing right here:


The seal hears the noise, taps the target (right) with its nose, and receives a delicious fish snack for its troubles. Image via Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory.

They're trying to find a baseline understanding of just how well seals can hear underwater so they can understand how loud noises in the oceans might affect seal populations in the wild.

And what they found is that seals have pretty good hearing, particularly underwater — and especially at lower frequencies.

The seals' sensitivity toward deep bass tones is unsurprising. If you've ever gone swimming while there's loud music playing, or even a speaker system in the pool, you know that underwater acoustics tend to amplify and emphasize the deep, long waveforms of low bass notes.

This could also explain why "Kiss From a Rose" sounds better with a sick subwoofer system.

Get it? Seal? Like the singer? Ugh, never mind. GIF from "The Voice."

But you know what else gets even louder underwater? Industrial drilling.

I'm sure we can all share our own frustrating anecdotes of the constant thrumming from a nearby construction site making it almost impossible to work or sleep or just enjoy your life.

And if you thought that was annoying, well...

Welcome to life in the Arctic Circle.

Here, the low, low frequencies of mechanical oil drilling resonate through the waters and interrupt the lives of seals, whales, walruses, and countless other aquatic animals.

Those sounds aren't just loud and annoying; a lot of Arctic animals depend on their ability to communicate underwater. It's how they talk to each other. It's how they find food and fend off enemy attacks.

Could you imagine dealing with those loud construction sounds every single day no matter where you went? Yeah. It just might start to get to you after a while.


"How come it's so loud when there's no else around?!" Photo via NOAA/Wikimedia Commons.

Prolonged exposure to these sounds can lead to permanent deafness long after the drilling is done.

And it's not just drilling either. There are helicopters and exploding sea ice and fracking and seismic surveying and so on. All those sounds can travel for miles and miles across the ocean floor — that's why whales sing their songs the way they do.

While most of the evidence is currently anecdotal, researchers such as those at the Pinniped Laboratory above are actively gathering data in order to better predict the specific effects of this kind of acoustic violence seals and other marine life experience.

"Hi, yeah, I live upstairs, and I was just wondering — do you mind turning the massive industrial flotillas down? Some of us have to work in the morning." Photo by Andreas Trepte/Wikimedia Commons.

But even without the confirmed findings, it's clear that noise pollution is having a definite effect on underwater environments and the animals that live in them.

For example, have you ever heard the story of the world's loneliest whale? There's a whale named Alice, who made headlines earlier this year because she sings at an abnormally high frequency (for a whale). As a result, the other whales can't communicate with her, and she's spent the last 20 years swimming all alone and waiting for another whale to sing back to her.

That could easily be the future for every aquatic Arctic animal unless we humans step in and take action. (Unless they're eaten by a predator before the sadness sets in because they can't hear anything around them. But that's like even more bleak, so just forget I said anything.)

So you can see, the impacts of Arctic drilling extend far, far beyond the oil industry.

If we're not going to pay attention to climate change, then the least we can do is pay attention to the sensory experience of the animals that are already fighting everyday to survive. So let's tell President Obama to stop the rush to expand offshore drilling, which will cut down on noise pollution and ensure a safer future for animals and humans alike.

It might be too late for me to save my ears from that wretched rock 'n' roll music, but it's not too late for the pinnipeds (underwater carnivorous mammals).

Watch the seals ace their hearing test in the video below:

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