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WATCH | Beneath the Arctic ice, this oceanographer records the sounds of climate change

The Arctic is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change, and the animals who call it home are bearing the brunt of habitat loss.

Beneath the layers of ice, bowhead whales are sounding a warning. Oceanographer Kate Stafford studies the effects of unpredictable climate patterns on these whales by using a unique method – listening to their songs.

“All marine animals use sound as their primary sense,” Stafford says. With the use of hydrophones, she records ambient noise in the ocean to research the migratory behaviour of marine mammals and the impacts on their habitat.

When the climate is stable and the ice is frozen solid, the Arctic has a low acoustic range and bowhead whale songs are clear.

Stafford and her team have recorded over 100 different vocalisations of these animals. However, in recent years the sounds of the ocean have become a cacophony as a result of human activity.

As temperatures rise and the ice melts, bowhead whale habitats are impacted, causing them to migrate. More vessels are entering the Arctic for oil and gas explorations.

Alien ship noises cause bowhead whales stress, affecting their feeding and swimming behaviours, and the way they communicate with one another.

Bowhead whales can live up to 200 years, and many of them may not have been exposed to this industrialised world, and have subsequently been unable to adapt.

Stafford and her team are amplifying our understanding of how the climate crisis is disrupting the ocean.

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As the underwater soundscape evolves, she is using her recordings to uncover ways to explore the ocean without jeopardising marine life.

Ships should be restricted to traversing the Arctic in seasons and regions that don’t clash with the bowhead whale’s mating, feeding, and migratory patterns.

The pace at which boats travel needs to be slowed down to ensure a quieter journey.

“Listening to nature is the best start to reversing the damage we’ve done,” Stafford says. “I have to do this work, because there is still time to change our ways.”

Footage by Kate Stafford and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington was used in the creation of this film.