Ocean acidification and the increasing transparency of the ocean to low-frequency sound

As the ocean becomes more acidic, low-frequency (~ 1–3 kHz and below) sound travels much farther due to changes in the amounts of pH-dependent species such as dissolved borate and carbonate ions, which absorb acoustic waves. The effect is quite large; a decline in pH of only 0.3 causes a 40% decrease in the intrinsic sound absorption properties of surface seawater. Because acoustic properties are measured on a logarithmic scale, and neglecting other losses, sound at frequencies important for marine mammals and for naval and industrial interests will travel some 70% farther with the ocean pH change expected from a doubling of CO2. This change will occur in surface ocean waters by mid century. The military and environmental consequences of these changes have yet to be fully evaluated. The physical basis for this effect is well known: if a sound wave encounters a charged molecule such as a borate ion that can be “squeezed” into a lower-volume state, a resonance can occur so that sound energy is lost, after which the molecule returns to its normal state. Ocean acousticians recognized this pH-sound linkage in the early 1970s, but the connection to global change and environmental science is in its infancy. Changes in pH in the deep sound channel will be large, and very-low-frequency sound originating there can travel far. In practice, it is the frequency range of ~ 300 Hz–10 kHz and the distance range of ~ 200–900 km that are of interest here.

Brewer, P. G., & Hester, K., 2009. Ocean acidification and the increasing transparency of the ocean to low-frequency sound. Oceanography 22(4): 86-93. Article.

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