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Underwater acoustics

Natalia Sidorovskaia

Underwater acoustics is a research area where scientists collect acoustic signals produced by humans or nature in the ocean and decode them through sophisticated signal processing and interpretation techniques. Acoustic signals are the most viable sensing tools to explore the underwater world because, unlike electromagnetic signals, they can propagate far from the source. This fact explains why marine animals (dolphins, whales etc.) have the most advanced sound production and perception (hearing) organs.

By interpreting underwater acoustic signals, we are looking for ways to improve our understanding of the underwater world and the processes happening in deep bottom layers. Acoustic signals help us to find natural resources (oil, gas) stored deep under the ocean bottom, to predict destructive earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricane paths, to understand marine mammal communities, and to unveil many other mysteries of the deep ocean.

The first focus of Natalia's research has been on developing computational models which accurately predict how different sounds propagate through different regions of the ocean. These models are used in detailed mapping of ocean temperature (ocean acoustic tomography) which impacts hurricane strengths and paths; in seismic data interpretation to find oil/gas reserves for deep water drilling; and in predicting the human environmental impact on marine life. In the past decade she has been also closely involved in designing, conducting and processing passive acoustic experiments to study marine mammals, particularly sperm and beaked whales in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2000 we formed a consortium of scientists (physicists, mathematicians, and biologists from four Gulf State Universities), called Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center (LADC). LADC research is mostly dedicated to studies of marine mammals in the world oceans based on recordings of their acoustic signals. One focus of LADC research is the search for subtle signatures in animal’s phonations that may give scientists clues how to recognize individual animals acoustically in collected data and to understand their communication codes (“languages”).
The expertise of the LADC group was currently acknowledged by awarding our consortium over $5,000,000 in funding from BP/GOMRI research program to continue monitoring effects of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico on deep diving marine mammals (learn more here). This award will open unprecedented opportunity for our research group to complete the only long-term study of the oil spill impact on several species of deep diving marine mammals using acoustic methods.