Could listening to the deep sea help save it?

An ROV examines a vent on top of a mound of pillow lava near a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the deep sea
ROV examines a vent on top of a mound of pillow lava at the bottom of the sea. Deep-living creatures often live in volatile, volcanic habitats – NOAA

Using sound to monitor the most mysterious realm of the ocean.

A database of deep-sea soundscapes could provide researchers with baseline understanding of healthy, remote ecosystems. Sound could even single out the sounds of communities or even individual species.

A hydrophone being lowered from a boat into the North Atlantic sea.
A hydrophone being lowered into the North Atlantic – Dave Mellinger/Oregon State University

The deep sea is difficult to visit and expensive to observe; underwater robots do not come cheap, but sound reigns supreme where it travels five times faster than in air. The hydrophone can pick up not just the noisy clicks of bickering dolphins but also the ambient hum of the deep-sea.

You need to know what the habitat sounds like when it’s healthy. When the soundscape has changed, the habitat may have changed, too.

Chong Chen, a deep-sea biologist at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, or JAMSTEC
Hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Suiyo Seamount southeast of Japan.
Vents at the bottom of the Suiyo Seamount southeast of Japan – JAMSTEC

Many deep-sea mining interests often overlap with biodiversity hot spots, such as sulphide-rich hydrothermal vents. We might know what a hydrothermal vent looks like, but what does it sound like? Soundscapes may offer long-distance cues to biodiversity change that would otherwise be invisible.


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