Quieter ships are on the Arctic’s horizon | Polarjournal
Disturbing the sound of silence (Photo: Sovcomflot)

As workplaces, ships must live up to tight regulations for how much noise their crews are exposed to. One key way of doing this is the guidelines, adopted in 2012 by the IMO, the UN agency that sorts out the minutiae of shipping, that uses an international convention known as Solas to require ships to be constructed in such a way that they reduce on-board noise.

On the other side of the gunwales, the matter is different story. Though the IMO has expressed concern about how much noise ships may be subjecting life below the surface of the ocean to, the guidlines it adopted in 2014 only provide “general advice” for how ships are built and run, for example, by addressing propeller design and the way the hulls of new ships are shaped, or by reducing speed and navigating around sensitive marine areas.

Despite the recognition that underwater noise is a problem for sea life, the voluntary nature of the current guidlines has meant that the issue has been pushed to the back burner as other types of maritime pollution have been addressed, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a group that spearheads a campaign to get the IMO to reduce black-carbon emissions. This, though, is looking to change. During a meeting of the IMO sub-committee dealing with ship construction that concluded on 21 January, a group of countries asked members to consider changes to the guidelines that they hope will get ships to turn down the volume, and to set targets for noise reduction.

Ships and other industrial activity at sea already make a lot of noise. Though there is no standard for measuring its impact, Canada’s transport ministry reckons that 130 species worldwide are affected. For large animals like whales that use sound to navigate, hunt and communicate, noise is particularly a big concern and has been linked to increased beachings.

A top-level threat for Arctic marine mammals (Photo: Michael Wenger)

The push to come up with something that is less of a guideline and more of a rule comes as shipping activity is increasing by a rate of two to three percent annually — on top of the three-fold increase it saw between 1992 and 2013. In the Arctic, the increase could be even more dramatic, with four times the number of ships operating in Arctic waters in 2025 than there were at the turn of the millennium, reckons WWF, a conservancy.

When it comes to noise, the Arctic requires perhaps more attention than other seas, in part because of an unfortunate combination of an abundance of species that feed near the surface and the fact that sound travels closer to the surface and further in cold water. What’s more, studies have shown that Arctic maritime species may be more sensitive to underwater noise than species elsewhere, and in some parts of the Arctic Ocean it may already be interfering with their ability to use sound.

Much of what we know about the impact sound is having on the region comes from a 2019 Arctic Council publication that was based on shipping traffic in the region between 2013 and 2019. It concluded that shipping is indeed making the Arctic a noisier place, and that it is noisiest during the summer when there is more open water, and thus more traffic. If it is true that studies suggesting that the ice cover itself has a silencing effect, then the projected continued decline of sea ice will be a double whammy.

The Arctic Council’s next task will be to predict how much noise ships in the Arctic will be making in 2030 and to come up with ways to prevent as much damage as possible. That may not be completely straightforward, say conservationists and lobby groups for the shipping industry alike, since measures like asking ships to sail a different route would lead to increased pollution in the form of exhaust and greenhouse-gas emissions, in effect, trading one type of pollution for another. Other measures, such as operating at slower speeds, a practice ships already use to save fuel, could result in less noise and fewer emissions — to the benefit of life not just below, but also above, water.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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