The Scientific Activist

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a case regarding the Navy conducting sonar training exercises in the proximity of marine mammals–some of which are threatened or endangered species. A large body of evidence indicates that these sorts of sonar exercises–which generate extremely loud underwater sounds–damage the hearing of these animals and disrupt their behavior, often leading to beached whales. And, at their worst, these exercises have been linked to scores of whale deaths–likely from decompression sickness as the whales panicked and surfaced too quickly.

A variety of analogies have been thrown around to describe just how intrusive this noise is to these whales–such as having a highway built next to your house, having a jet land next door, or standing next to a rocket blasting off. Given the players involved, though, maybe the most apt analogy would be that with the level of dangerous and disruptive noise that these animals are regularly being exposed to during these training exercises, it’s probably something like living in an artillery range–and it’s apparently not that much less dangerous.

After a series of court proceedings, a federal judge in January ruled that the Navy could not use sonar within 12 nautical miles of California’s coast or within 2,200 yards of any marine mammal. However, later that month in the name of “national security”, President Bush exempted the Navy from the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Environmental Protection Act in order to circumvent the court’s decision. Although this is clearly a bad move and one that will likely be detrimental to marine mammal populations (and one that seems particularly unnecessary given that environmental protections are being curbed pretty broadly here and not even in response to a specific security threat), the question the Supreme Court will be considering is whether this was actually legal at all.

For more background on the issue, check out this very detailed post at Cocktail Party Physics. Although I think there might be a little too much scientific equivocating going on in this post, Ouellette raises an important point: there is still a significant amount of scientific uncertainty here. From what I can see, however, the evidence is substantial enough to limit the Navy’s activities as the courts so far have. But, even if you don’t agree with that, it would still be pretty difficult to argue that there’s not at least enough evidence for a moratorium to be placed on such activities while their impact is more thoroughly studied. Probably erring on the side of too little uncertainty, on the other hand, you can check out what the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)–the organization pursuing this litigation–has to say about sonar testing.

Beyond that, Island of Doubt has a couple of posts worth checking out, and Deep Sea News contests the idea that these sonar tests are really so important for national security. Also, lest we forget that sonar tests aren’t the only auditory threat to marine mammals, Utne Reader describes the dangers of human-generated background noise (complete with sound clips).