Ocean Acoustics Program

Program Goal and Activities

Better understand how marine animals use sound, and the potential impacts of man-made noise on the underwater environment.

The NOAA Fisheries Office of Science & Technology Ocean Acoustics Program supports and/or conducts research examining the potential impacts of anthropogenic sound on marine animals.  The primary aims are to increase understanding of:

  • marine animals’ use of sound,
  • how underwater acoustics can be used to assess marine animal populations
  • the degree to which anthropogenic activities are changing the underwater soundscape
  • how these changes may potentially impact marine animals in their acoustic habitat
  • and what measures can be taken to mitigate these potential impacts.

In order to increase our understanding of these issues, the Ocean Acoustics Program:

  • funds research directly, through an annual NOAA-wide internal funding allocations.
  • leverages funds with other government agencies to conduct work addressing impacts of noise on marine animals, as well as improve use of passive acoustic techniques to gather baseline life history and population data
  • conducts primary research utilizing passive acoustics in the Arctic Ocean and other regions.
  • provides technical support and advice to the Office of Protected Resources in the management and assessment of protected species and anthropogenic impacts.
  • encourages education and capacity building in marine acoustics.
  • and coordinates on intra- and inter-governmental bodies and panels to address and highlight underwater noise issues.

Humpback whale song spectrogram

humpback spectrogram

Why is this important?

Sound is the most efficient means of communicating underwater.   Unlike light, which is filtered from the water column within tens of meters, sound has the ability to travel around the world.  Marine mammals and other aquatic animals have evolved over millions of years to use underwater sound as a primary means of communicating and assessing their environment. Sound plays an essential role in various critical activities like breeding, foraging, maintaining social structure, and avoiding predators.

The efficiency with which sound travels underwater has also led to increasing concern over the potential impacts of man-made sound introduced into the oceans.  Since the beginning of the industrial age, man has introduced increasing amounts of sound into the worlds oceans from wide ranging activities (e.g. noise from global shipping, oil and gas exploration, construction activity, naval exercises).   Potential effects of these sounds may range over wide spatial, from the immediate vicinity of the activity to across ocean basins, and temporal scales, with both chronic effects, where background sound levels are increased over long periods of time, and acute impacts, where shorter duration, intense sounds may alter the behavior and/or health of individuals in the short term.

Acoustics Program Internal Funding Allocation (IFA)

The Ocean Acoustics IFA funds research that expands understanding of the potential impacts of man-made ocean noise on marine animals in accordance with the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.  The research themes eligible for funding include: 1) levels and trends in ocean noise, 2) the 'soundscape' and noise animals are exposed to, 3) animals’ use of sound, 4) effects of noise exposure on auditory ability, behavior, physiology, and/or communication, and 5) mitigation measures needed to reduce noise exposure and/or its effects. Please visit our Research and Development: Acoustics Program IFA page for more details about opportunities and funded projects.