Inappropriate use of low frequency acoustic sound

Other Names:
Environmental impacts of low frequency active sonar
Damaging underwater seismic tests

Sound propagated in water loses little of its intensity with distance. Many aquatic animals use sounds for communication and may be particular vulnerable to high levels of sound. Seismic blasting for undersea mineral exploration involves sonar cannons firing loud explosions every 10-15 seconds, indefinitely.  It can kill scallops and tiny zooplankton more than a kilometre away. It can damage whales’ hearing and keep them away from key feeding and breeding grounds. It could affect the immune system of lobsters and other sea creatures.

Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) consists of very loud, very low-frequency sounds designed to carry long distances underwater. It was developed by the Navy to detect submarines across large distances. Observers have reported negative impact on marine life from this type of sonar, specifically on the feeding, migration and breeding behaviours of humpback whales and sea turtles.



In 1987, dolphins exposed to 235 decibels of sonar stranded and were found to suffer from tissue and lung explosion. LFAS levels planned for use by the US Navy are reported to start at 180 decibels in areas near shore and could be considerably higher in open waters. In 1997/98, 7 out of 8 swimmers in the vicinity of the US Navy's LFAS testing in Hawaii reported becoming sick with a variety of symptoms ranging from nausea, diarrhoea, dizziness and chest congestion. Many were seasoned swimmers and a number had not been swimming at the time, but on the beach.

A study published in Nature suggests that similar tests, possibly causing tissue explosion, may have been responsible for a mass stranding of around 200 Cuvier's beaked whales in the Ionian Sea (Mediterranean Sea, near Greece) in 1996. Documentation exists that twelve of the stranded whales were exposed to NATO sonar at 150-160 decibels. Other strandings linked to sonar activity include: (1) The Bahamas (14 March 2000), mass dolphin and whale strandings coincided with US low frequency active sono-buoy testing. Tests on these whales proved that they had died from brain cavity, ear, and other tissue explosion. (2) In February 2000, hundreds of dolphins began washing up on European shores. (3) On 21 January 2000, hundreds of dolphins beached along the Atlantic coastline (especially Florida); some suspect NATO sonar in the general area may be the cause. In the previous month there had also been incidences of dolphins washed up dead on the northwest Florida coast. (4) Virgin Islands (October 2001) sonar sounds followed by multiple cetacean strandings in the area. (5) Canary Islands– a total of 21 whale strandings in 1985, 1988, and 1989 were linked to visible US Navy manoeuvres. (6) Haro Strait, San Juan Islands (summer 1996) 195 decibels were sent into this key waterway used by orcas, porpoises, seals, and other mammals, followed by an increase in strandings of these mammals. A news service recently reported that the previously thriving orca population from this area is now in enough trouble to be considered eligible for the Endangered Species list. (7) Hawaiian Islands (1998), three whale calves and one dolphin calf were found dead or abandoned during and immediately following sonar testing, even though in 15 years of research this phenomenon had never been observed. (8) Since the open testing in California began in 1997, sonar exposed whales immediately began to strand in increased numbers. In addition, there was a report of uncharacteristically aggressive behaviour which is known to be a symptom of LFAS exposure. In 1999, more than 150 grey whales were found dead due to starvation along their migratory route where testing took place in 1998. Starvation could have been the result of deafness. (9) Rumour has it that the Australian government has questioned a connection between observed US Navy and NATO manoeuvering and strandings off their shores.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST