Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Author: Meghna Datta

Un-whale-come noise: the connection between military sonar and mass strandings of beaked whales

Beaked whale

It’s tough to be a human in the 21st century. Sure, we don’t have to worry about predators or scavenging for our next meal like our ancestors, but we’re inundated by so much buzz that it can be hard to think. Crowded places, social media, blaring news headlines, tabloids at the checkout line, terrible traffic patterns… noise, audible and not, is everywhere. You would think that as humans, we’d sympathize with others feeling the unwelcome burdens of too much stimulation. But as Dr. Robert Schick of the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL) explained at a talk on November 1st, sometimes we forget about noise that isn’t on land. For years, whales — and specifically, beaked whales — have been feeling the impacts of sound stressors in the ocean. 

Dr. Robert Schick, Nicholas School of the Environment


Human activity generates a lot of buzzing in the ocean. For example, there’s the  incredible amount of noise generated by renewable energy such as offshore wind turbines. Then there’s shipping traffic — consider just the United Kingdom, which reports that 90% of products sold in the country have to arrive by boat. But one of the projects at the MGEL focuses on a particular source of noise: military sonar, created by Lockheed Martin, which is the primary weapon that the U.S Navy utilizes to locate enemy submarines. 

Navy sonar activity has been associated with mass strandings of beaked whales for a while. In the early 1990s, an unusual amount of whales were seen beached off the coast of the Canary Islands, the Ionian Sea in Greece, and in the Bahamas. But what’s the significance? Well, imagine that you’re at a really loud concert — the loudest rock bands in the world generally top out at 130 decibels. Then, imagine you’re a beaked whale, exposed to slow-rolling sound waves that can reach up to 235 decibels, which is way beyond the sound tolerance for humans and most animals. Sonar causes whales to migrate hundreds of miles away from their homes, bleed out of their eyes and ears, and beach themselves, leading to the mass strandings that scientists have observed. 

This leads to the current MGEL project, co-lead by Duke Marine Lab director Dr. Andy Read and Dr. Brandon Southall in Cape Hatteras. Beaked whales dive to extremely low depths. “Imagine climbing the Burj Khalifa three times while holding your breath,” Schick said, to a room full of awestruck reactions. Needless to say, it’s hard to do that in silence — what happens when you factor in 235 decibels worth of sound disturbance? 

MGEL, March 2019

The team uses satellite tags as well as DTAGs (digital acoustic tags) to tag whales and determine whether or not a whale was exposed to sonar. DTAGs have depth sensors, an accelerometer to see how an animal is moving, a hydrophone to hear what is happening, and a suction cup, ensuring that a whale isn’t physically implanted with a tag. However, this also leads to a limited duration of use. Satellite tags, on the other hand, feature no sound recording abilities, and have coarse dive data, but can be used for much longer. Utilizing these two tagging methods, Schick explained that the lab then embarks on a rather tedious process: “find a whale, hope it’s a beaked whale, wait forever, tag the whale, allow it to return to baseline, expose the whale to sound, then quantify what happens”. 

There are lots of moving parts that can result in uncertainty. The team has to factor in and work around variables including simply the presence of whales, the weather, the gulf stream, spatial uncertainty, and the schedule of navy ships. However, through this research, the team has been able to map the locations of whales at given times, with given sound stressors, and further strengthen the link between sonar and strandings. 

Plot of beaked whale strandings from 1950 to 2004, taken from D’Amico et al., 2009

So what’s next? 2020 will see MGEL engaging in Spring and Fall field sessions, with one of the focuses being the addition of other sources of sound, such as wind and low-frequency data from ships. But research on strandings also raises ethical questions, furthering discussion about the issue.

 The US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) makes it “illegal—with certain exceptions—to ‘take’ a whale, dolphin, porpoise, seal, sea lion, manatee, dugong, sea otter, or polar bear in U.S. waters, or elsewhere by a U.S. citizen without a permit”. How does one categorize mass strandings — does sonar disturbance leading to forced migration constitute the “taking” of whales or simply an unfortunate result of the U.S. Navy’s need to track enemy subs? This definition may be still undecided, but one thing is for sure: inhumane strandings over the course of such a long period time have caught the environmental community’s attention, and as research like at MGEL continues to take place, further action to protect species like beaked whales from human disturbance is inevitable. 

Information and figures from talk taken from: Schick et al. “Accounting for Positional Uncertainty When Modeling Received Levels for Tagged Cetaceans Exposed to Sonar.” Aquatic Mammals, 2019.

By Meghna Datta

Meet the New Blogger: Meghna Datta

Hi! My name is Meghna Datta, and I’m a freshman. I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, so North Carolina weather has been quite the adjustment. Apart from the humidity, though, I’m so excited to be at Duke! I’m an aspiring pre-med student with absolutely no idea what I want to major in. And it’s funny that I’ve grown to love science as much as I do. Up until tenth grade, I was sure that I would never, ever work in STEM.

My first love was the humanities. As a child I was hooked on books (still am!) and went through four or five a week. In high school, I channeled my love for words into joining my school’s speech and debate team and throwing myself into English and history classes, until being forced to take AP Biology my sophomore year completely changed my trajectory.

Science had always bored me with its seemingly pointless intricacies. Why would I want to plod through tedious research when I could be covering a groundbreaking story or defending justice in a courtroom instead? But the lure of biology for me was in its societal impact. Through research, we’ve been able to cure previously incurable diseases and revolutionize treatment plans to affect quality of life.

Meghna Datta repping the Devils

In AP Bio, understanding the mechanisms of the human body seemed so powerful to me. Slowly, I began to entertain the notion of a career in medicine, one of many scientific fields that works to improve lives every day.

Now, the research going on at Duke doesn’t cease to amaze me. Specifically, I’m interested in science for social good. Be it sustainable engineering, global health, or data-driven solutions to problems, I love to see the ways in which science intersects with social issues. As I have learned, science does not need to be done in isolation behind pipettes. Science is exciting and indicative of society’s shared sense of humanity. At Duke, there’s no shortage of this environment.

As a blogger I’m so excited to see the inspiring ways that peers and faculty are working to solve problems. And because science isn’t a traditionally “showy” field, I am looking forward to shining the spotlight on people at Duke who tirelessly research behind the scenes to impact those at Duke and beyond. The research community at Duke has so much to celebrate, and through blogging I’m excited to do just that!

From Jails to Detention Centers: a Disconcerting Immigration History

The political climate for the past ten years has been anything but calm, and central to political struggles in D.C. and elsewhere has been the ethical issues surrounding immigrant detention. But for Brianna Nofil (T ‘12), there has never been a better time to research the questions that intrigue her the most.  

A native of South Florida, Nofil has felt the undercurrent of immigration tensions throughout her life as a resident of a region with a large population of immigrants. Central to this tension was Krome Detention Center — a looming, overpowering presence in her community. Krome, which was a missile testing facility for most of 20th century, has only recently been converted to an institution to house detained immigrants. Krome had always been there, but exactly what its existence meant in her hometown was not usually acknowledged, and as Nofil remarked, “There was a reason people living there had a hazy understanding of what was going on.” 

While at Duke, Nofil, who double majored in history and public policy studies with a minor in education, let her experiences growing up lead her to a senior thesis on the history and privatization of U.S. immigration detention — which, according to Duke history professor Gunther Peck, was nothing less than “stunning.” In a round-table forum on October 1, Nofil delved deeper into her central academic interests — of which she has written about in publications such as Time and Atlas Obscura — as well as her current studies as a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.

Jose A. Iglesias for the Miami Herald

Coming to Duke, Nofil used the resources and classes in the history department to answer two chief questions: what power structures were in place to confirm an institution like Krome’s significance in the community? And where exactly did this power come from?  

These questions lead her to her current focus at Columbia, which is the history of immigrant detention centers in the 20th century. Her main argument? “U.S immigration has always really relied on jails.” 

By the early 1900s, immigration was taking hold as a major historical event in the U.S and the federal government took its chances on what it saw as the perfect solution — let local communities handle immigration, and thus control what could (and eventually would become) a growing problem. This led to a network of contracts in the 20th century that paid sheriffs of small, lower-income towns all over America a nightly rate to “board” immigrants in jails. 

One case study, as Nofil points out, centered around Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s who came to northern New York from Canada. They were held in local jails all throughout the county while their cases were processed, and communities see the booming immigrant detention business as net-positive for the community. Within mere months, these Chinese jails had created an arms race of sorts. Communities competed and clamored for more contracts from the federal government as they saw incomes in their town continue to grow. 

It’s easy to see the moral dilemma of profiting off of detaining immigrants, but what is even more concerning is why the federal government pawned off a federal responsibility to communities, thus ensuring a lack of standardization in immigrant treatment across the country. So while there was relative support surrounding the business, unease soon began to emerge. As quota laws and anti-trafficking measures were created, Canadian and European immigrants also made their way over to the U.S, prompting foreign countries to finally notice  — and ask — whether communities utilizing prisons as detention centers was ethically sound. Newspapers around this time started publishing op-eds and editorials, and soon a resistance against profiting off of jailing immigrants cropped up — something Nofil adds is “inspiring” to see, especially in the context of our own times. 

The perpetual failure of jails has allowed immigration in the modern day to position big detention centers as a humane alternative. But what does that mean for immigration detention today? As Nofil posits, early forms of resistance are inspiring because it assures us that jailing immigrants was always questioned by communities, even at that time. Communities were capable of distinguishing right from wrong, even amidst the issue of immigration where the makeup and economy of their communities were at risk of changing. As the conversation concluded, one central theme seemed to stand out — that to understand the consequences of immigration detention centers, we must look to the past to see how detention started, and only by understanding the origins can we work toward a better solution. 

By Meghna Datta
By Meghna Datta

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