“Global Warming Is Changing How the Ocean Carries Sound”

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The Story

“Global Warming Is Changing How the Ocean Carries Sound”
by Anna Nowogrodzki
Hakai, April 17, 2017

The Pitch

[Nowogrodzki notes: For context, I had not worked with this editor before. I pitched the story as a feature but they commissioned it as an “in the pipeline” type news story.]

I wrote a brief blog post related to this topic for Nautilus and I’ve done a lot more reporting on the subject. I look forward to hearing what you think when you get a moment. I have a lot more detail from my existing reporting, so if you’d like to hear more about some aspect of this, feel free to call me at [redacted].

A drone listens to the sound of climate change in the Arctic

Fifteen minutes in the 29-degree Arctic water, and Paul couldn’t find the underwater drone. It should’ve been obvious—it was 12 feet long, 850 pounds, and outfitted with two strobe lights. The last navigational reading had showed it was near the 14-foot-long slash in the ice above Paul’s head, the one through which he had dived to look for the vehicle. It was around 4 on a March afternoon, and it would be more than 24 hours before they recovered the vehicle.

This feature story would follow MIT graduate students Scott Carper and Thom Howe as they deploy an autonomous drone to map in detail how global warming is changing the way sound travels in the Arctic Ocean. In short, climate change created a warm layer of water at 50m depth that traps sound waves under it, making sound waves (including submarine sonar) travel farther than ever before in this region. This was only discovered two years ago and has still not been fully mapped.

At the US Navy’s camp on the Arctic ice northeast of Alaska, the MIT team lost their drone underwater, watched it sink to depths it was not designed to withstand, laboriously found it again, hauled a propane furnace out to melt holes in 6-foot-thick ice, and pulled 5,000 pounds of
ice cores out of the water before they successfully recovered the drone. Their beards froze to their balaclavas, they jumped into the Polar water in their boxers for fun, and men with rifles guarded them in case of polar bears. They’re still sifting through their data, but they mapped the ocean acoustic phenomenon in greater detail than ever before and worked out many of the kinks in operating the drone. Eventually, the Navy would like to use drones like this to find, identify, and track vessels like foreign submarines.

The MIT team has gorgeous photos of the Navy camp and the drone. Sources I’d talk to include Scott Carper, Thom Howe, Lee Freitag (engineer at Woods Hole), Bill Kuperman (ocean acoustics expert), and oceanographers John Toole, Mary-Louise Timmermans, Mike Steele, and/or Rebecca Woodgate.

If you’d like to see a few of my relevant clips, here are three:

Feature for Mental Floss on Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter of Biosphere 2

News story for Nature on why biological collections in museums are important

Why people turn to lemurs and other endangered animals for dinner in Madagascar, Smithsonian

No embargo, went up online two days ago (according to my RSS feed), no other coverage that I could find. I look forward to hearing what you think when you get a moment. Thanks!

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