Dr. Steve Insley and Dr. Tara Howatt ready to test the ocean glider., WCS Canada
Dr. Steve Insley and Dr. Tara Howatt ready to test the ocean glider. © WCS Canada

Scouting for Sound in the Arctic Depths


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William Halliday
Conservation Scientist/Arctic Acoustics Program Lead

Related

Whales and seals Arctic

Published

2023-11-15

Our Western Arctic team is tracking the performance of a new listening device – a “glider” that can roam beneath the water’s surface picking up sounds and other ocean state information.

You may have taken a few spins around the lake tubing or waterskiing this summer. Our Western Arctic team, on the other hand, took to a lake near Whitehorse, Yukon to track the performance of a new listening device – a “glider” that can roam beneath the water’s surface picking up sounds and other ocean state information.

The OceanScout glider is shaped like a two-meter long torpedo but is a friendly low-noise device that can be programmed to navigate through the ocean for up to a month independently. During that time, it will collect acoustic data through its onboard hydrophone while also collecting information on the chemical makeup and temperature of the waters it is moving through.

While the team kept the glider on the equivalent of a rope leash for its lake trials, once it is on its real ocean mission it will swim free and only surface intermittently to communicate with satellites and report its position. It can move up and down in the ocean depths by shifting its onboard ballast and can be given fresh instructions when it surfaces. The whole device is battery powered.

  • The Arctic Team scouting sites to test the Ocean Glider

    The Arctic Team scouting sites to test the Ocean Glider
    © WCS Canada

  • Dr. Tara Howatt with the glider, a mobile acoustic/oceanographic sampler.

    Dr. Tara Howatt with the glider, a mobile acoustic/oceanographic sampler.
    © WCS Canada

  • Dr. William Halliday ready to launch the glider.

    Dr. William Halliday ready to launch the glider.
    © WCS Canada

  • The ocean glider will hopefully be deployed in the Beaufort Sea to listen for bowhead whales.

    The ocean glider will hopefully be deployed in the Beaufort Sea to listen for bowhead whales.
    © WCS Canada

Arctic program scientist Dr. William (Bill) Halliday explains that the glider will be used to “detect vocal marine mammal species, such as bowhead whales and beluga whales, and also measure natural sound levels and noise from ship traffic.” The conductivity and temperature data the glider collects will allow the team to measure oceanographic conditions, “effectively letting us measure the ocean habitat where the marine mammals are present,” he adds.

This innovative piece of equipment has been built from the ground up for exactly the kind of scientific monitoring program our team has had underway in the Western Arctic for a number of years now. That program has helped to reveal a lot about how whales and seals react to ship noise, which is rapidly growing in the previously quiet Arctic Ocean thanks to retreating ice cover.

With more ships moving through Arctic waters every year, it is important to get a good picture of where ships and whales may come into conflict and understand how increased ship noise may interact with an increase in natural background noise caused by loss of ice cover and greater wave action or other climate change impacts. Our team has already developed recommendations for slowing ship traffic to reduce noise and collision risk and avoiding sensitive areas frequented by whales based on its research to date.

But the Scout will really enhance our team’s ability to assess what is happening over a much broader area compared to the stationary acoustic recorders they have been using to this point. It can be deployed from a small boat thanks it to light weight (22.5 kg) by one or two people, which also makes it easy to work with. Stationary acoustic recorders, on the other hand, often have to be deployed from ships in areas far from shore that are out of reach for smaller craft.

The test runs the team did with the glider in Little Atlin Lake southeast of Whitehorse went well, Bill reports. A few more tests are planned for spring of 2024 before the team is ready to drop the glider into the ocean near Tuktoyaktuk and watch it sail away under its own command into the ocean depths.

Western Arctic

Western Arctic

WCS Canada's Western Arctic Program is focused on the Arctic marine environment, which is facing major changes like sea ice loss, increased ship traffic, and development pressures.

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Addressing impacts from shipping and climate change in the western Arctic

The sounds of the north: exploring the underwater soundscape of the western Canadian Arctic

The sounds of the north: exploring the underwater soundscape of the western Canadian Arctic

The Arctic Ocean is vast, often covered in ice, and is rarely warmer than 0 °C, yet it is host to a cacophony of interesting sounds.
William Halliday