Navy Sonar System
by The National Resources Defense Council
The U.S. Navy wants to flood the world's oceans and coastal waters with sonar technology that deafens -- and kills -- whales and other marine mammals.
Researchers have found that many humpback whales cease singing when exposed to © Bill Lawton / NMML
LFA sonar signal that is hundreds of miles distant.
Around the globe, nations are testing and beginning to deploy "active sonar" technology, which uses extremely loud sound to detect submarines. The problem? Active sonar can injure and even kill marine mammals. It has been conclusively linked to the deaths of seven whales in the Bahamas in March 2000; that stranding is only one of a mounting number of similar events.
The U.S. Navy has led the
push toward use of active sonar. In full knowledge of the disastrous
effects that active sonar's intense noise may have on whale populations
all over the world, the Navy has also conducted testing in complete
secrecy and has consistently evaded and violated environmental law.
In July 2002, despite strong concerns from many leading scientists, the Bush administration issued a long-sought permit allowing the Navy to use the biggest gun in its active-sonar arsenal, the SURTASS LFA system, in as much as 75 percent of the world's oceans. NRDC filed a lawsuit to stop deployment of the system, and in October 2002 won a preliminary injunction against broad deployment of the LFA system. The judge held that the administration's permit to deploy LFA likely violates a number of federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge also agreed that the science clearly demonstrates "the possibility, indeed probability, of irreparable injury" to marine mammals should LFA sonar be deployed widely.
litigators will soon face off with the Bush administration in federal
court to determine whether this dangerous technology is finally unleashed
upon entire populations of whales and other marine mammals -- or whether
it should be permanently blocked until the Navy obeys the law and
demonstrates that LFA will not cause serious harm to ocean life.
The Bahamas Whale Deaths
the 13 beaked whales that stranded in the Bahamas in March 2000 after
exposure to active sonar, seven died, including this one.
the Navy is preparing to deploy an active sonar system that is potentially
even more dangerous than the one that killed the whales in the Bahamas.
This system, called Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency
Active Sonar (or "LFA," for short), produces powerful waves of
energy that can spread across hundreds of thousands of square miles of
ocean. Even the Navy has conceded that the use of this system world-wide
could harm many thousands of marine mammals, including significant numbers
of species such as blue whales, humpback whales and sperm whales, which
are already considered endangered..
According to the Navy, LFA sonar functions like a floodlight, scanning the ocean at vast distances with intense sound. Each loudspeaker in the system's long array can generate 215 decibels of sound. Worse yet, not far from the array the signals begin to combine, and the result as the signals travel can be as forceful as 240 decibels transmitted at the source. (To understand just how powerful these sounds are, keep in mind that the decibel scale used for measuring noise is like the Richter scale used for measuring earthquakes: both use small differences to express increasing orders of magnitude.) One hundreds miles from the system, the sound level would be from 150 to 160 decibels, still loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage in humans.
Immersed in Sound
Whales use their exquisitely
sensitive hearing like humans use their eyes -- their hearing helps them
follow migratory routes, locate one another over great distances, find
food, and care for their young. Noise that undermines their ability to
hear can threaten their ability to function and survive. As one scientist
succinctly put it: "A deaf whale is a dead whale." But what
concerns marine scientists even more than short-term effects on individual
animals is the potential long-term impact that the Navy's LFA system might
have on the behavior and viability of entire populations of marine
Poor Track Record of Environmental Stewardship
LFA sonar was a Navy secret until 1994, when NRDC began
investigating rumors that sound experiments were taking place off the
California coast. Despite the Navy's stonewalling, it soon became clear
that the Navy had already field-tested LFA sonar in 22 operations -- but
had never studied its effects on marine life. Caught in violation of
federal and state environmental law, the Defense Department agreed to
conduct a full-scale study of environmental impacts and disclose how the
sonar would affect marine mammals, sea turtles and other ocean species
before putting the LFA system into use.
Navy released a final Environmental Impact Statement in 2001, but it was
disturbingly limited. Legally required to be a "rigorous and
objective evaluation" of environmental risks, the study failed to
answer the most basic questions about its controversial system: How will
LFA affect the long-term health and behavior of whales, dolphins and
hundreds of other species? Taking place as it does over an enormous
geographic area, what effect might it have on marine populations?
New Threat to Coastal Waters
recent years, NRDC has found that the Navy is continuing its troubling
pattern of noncompliance with our nation's environmental laws. It has been
testing new high-intensity active sonar systems in coastal waters
-- areas of immense biological productivity that also happen to be crucial
habitat for marine mammals -- again without conducting meaningful review
of the technologies' environmental impacts and without meeting other basic
requirements set forth in our environmental laws.
This new program, called Littoral Warfare Advanced Development, or LWAD, aims to bring active sonar from the depths of the ocean to thecoasts. Among the systems being tested is an adaptation of the very same mid-frequency active sonar system responsible for the mass stranding in the Bahamas. NRDC is especially alarmed by the use of these systems in shallow coastal waters where there is greater potential for strandings of whales; our lawsuit, brought in the fall of 2001, is pending.
End Run Around Environmental Laws
the October 2002 injunction against broad use of LFA sonar was a
short-lived reprieve for the world's oceans. Stymied by the law, the
Department of Defense is now pursuing an outright end-run around the
courts -- and the nation's environmental laws. Congress is now considering
a Bush administration proposal to grant continuous, across-the-board
exemptions for the Department of Defense from the laws that protect
our air and water, clean up our toxic waste and conserve our most
endangered species. These exemptions are being pursued even though current
law provides for the waiving of environmental rules for reasons of
marine mammals, such blanket exemptions could be disastrous. The likely
result of these dramatic changes would be weaker legal protection, less
mitigation of the harm caused by military activities such as LFA sonar,
and less information for the public. (For more information, see this broad
backgrounder on the Defense Department's requests for exemptions
from environmental laws, or this detailed
analysis of the proposed amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection
a message telling your senators and representative that national defense
shouldn't come at the expense of what the military is supposed to be
defending, and that when national security is not at stake, no government
agency should be above the law. ACT NOW!
Crucial Moment for the World's Marine Mammals
U.S. Navy's active sonar systems have the potential to hurt whale
populations across the world. They also represent a dangerous escalation
in the proliferation of noise throughout the world's oceans -- whales are
only one kind of marine life that evolved over millennia to depend for
their survival on their ability to hear and be heard. Now, with the noise
generated by offshore oil and gas development, shipping traffic, and the
Navy's new sonar technologies, the oceans can be as loud as Times Square
at rush hour.
NRDC's efforts to bring attention to the serious risks of active sonar are aided immensely by the tens of thousands of messages our members and other activists have sent, demanding that active sonar not be used until the long-term safety of ocean wildlife can be assured. Please continue to help us keep the pressure on the Navy to meet its environmental obligations.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and
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