Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. IV No. 4 October 1995


By Brent Hall, CSI Board

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography's "Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate" (ATOC) project continues to be a source of controversy. At this point, it is difficult to tell whether ATOC is designed to measure global warming as originally claimed, or to measure the effects of loud noise on marine mammals as currently claimed, or whether it is a cover for secret military research as recently accused. In this article I will try to summarize the confusing facts.

As proposed, ATOC was supposed to measure the temperature of the deep Pacific Ocean by injecting intense sounds into the ocean off California and Hawaii, which would be picked up by arrays of hydrophones which belong to the Navy. The speed of these sounds through the water would be measured, which would provide an indirect measurement of the water's temperature. The experiment was to continue for ten years; an upward trend in temperature over the years might be evidence of global warming.

The first controversy over ATOC arose from the fact that these sounds may be sufficiently intense to injure or otherwise adversely affect marine mammals and other ocean life. A "Marine Mammal Research Program" (MMRP) was added to ATOC, so that marine biologists could determine after-the-fact whether the sounds had any effect on whales and other marine mammals. As a result of continued public opposition, Scripps has virtually abandoned the global warming aspect of ATOC, and the MMRP is apparently now the project's primary purpose. They will run the sound source for two years and determine whether it harms marine mammals.

Controversy arose again when on 11 July 1995, Dr. Walter Munk, the principal investigator for ATOC at Scripps, was quoted on the Marine Mammals Research and Conservation Discussion (MARMAM) as saying that he never claimed ATOC had anything to do with global warming or the greenhouse effect, but only with small scale ocean climate.

Despite these controversial aspects of ATOC, six environmental organizations (the Humane Society of the U.S., American Oceans Campaign, Earth Island Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, League for Coastal Protection, and the Natural Resources Defense Council) have signed an agreement with Scripps to allow the ATOC/MMRP project to proceed without further opposition.

ATOC has received the required permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Coastal Commission to proceed with the California portion of the project. The sound source and cable are expected to be installed in late October to early November. The Hawaii portion is undergoing hearings before Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources; there is no definite date for the installation of that sound source.

ATOC is funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), formerly part of the Defense Department, and uses hydrophone arrays belonging to the Navy that were built to monitor Soviet submarines. It is claimed to be an example of the Defense Department's "dual-use" program, which promotes the post-cold-war civilian use of military equipment. However, its connection with ARPA leads some people to suspect that ATOC is actually a continuation of the earlier secret military research.

The latest development is an ongoing lawsuit against ATOC brought by the Great Whales Foundation to protect whales and other marine animals from the hazards of ATOC and claiming that ATOC is indeed a cover for secret military research. A court document filed by legal counsel for the ATOC project acknowledged that even if it was a secret military operation, no law would require them to disclose that fact. Will we ever know the truth about ATOC?

NOTE (27 October 1995): Since the publication of this article, some factual errors have been pointed out to me. I said that ARPA was "formerly part of the Defense Department", when actually it still is part of the Defense Department. Also, "dual-use" means that a project must have both a military and civilian objective, and is not just the civilian use of military equipment.

Refer to the next article on ATOC: ATOC Project Delayed (temporarily) by Dead Whales, in Vol. V No. 1, January 1996

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© Copyright 1995, Cetacean Society International, Inc.