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UBC researchers tackling noise pollution in oceans to protect marine mammals


Researchers at the University of British Columbia are diving into a noisy issue in our oceans that’s impacting whales and other marine mammals.

Rajeev Jaiman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said underwater noise pollution in the ocean has increased along with shipping traffic.

“In the last 20, 30 years, the amount of noise has increased about 20 decibels, which is a lot,” Jaiman said.

He said the Port of Vancouver sees up to 4,000 vessels every year. They bring with them noisy propellers.

“Propeller noise can hit 170 decibels, the equivalent of a jet engine or a rocket lift-off,” he said.

This can disrupt marine life with a 100-kilometre radius.

Andrew Trites, a professor at UBC and director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit, said the noise affects all marine mammals, but that “some are more sensitive than others.”

“Here in B.C., probably our most sensitive species would be our killer whales and humpback whales,” he said.

According to researchers, chronic noise can lead to stress, hearing loss and feeding problems for marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises.

“I think it comes as a real shock when we hear just how noisy the ocean has become,” said Trite.

“So for example, in B.C., probably the biggest source of noise we have is from BC Ferries.”

Jaiman calls it “a very complex problem.”

The movement of ships and propellers’ rotation create steam bubbles that implode and result in a popping effect.

UBC engineers, supported by federal funding, are looking at ways to dampen noise from propellers by minimizing turbulence. One solution may be to inject a jet of fluid to help control propeller movement.

“We’re looking at engineering design and we improve the design of these propellers and vessels and come up with a solution to reduce the noise,” Jaiman said.

Supported through federal funding, researchers are also developing artificial intelligence that will alert ship operators to marine mammals so they can adjust their location.

Trites says mammals have found ways to compensate for the increased noise.

“That seems to be the way in which marine animals are adapting, to have to call louder and be closer together, but that comes at a cost to their ability to find food and to do normal things,” he said.

It’s hoped new research will find ways to reduce the underwater pollution in the oceans.

“Efficient AI-based predictions together with novel flow control devices and structural modifications can help us to tackle ship noise pollution while reducing carbon emissions,” said Jaiman. Top Stories

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