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Wired News June 30, 2003

Navy to Defend Sonar in Court

By Noah Shachtman

For more than a year, the U.S. Navy and environmentalists have been in close combat over sonar and its effect on marine mammals. On Monday, their fighting will culminate in court.

The Navy says it needs a wide berth to test its controversial, ultra-loud, low-frequency sonar system. The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, and other green groups counter that the military has to be more mindful of whales and other marine mammals when it runs the tests. Whales depend on their ears to make their way around the oceans, after all. The sonar in question can be as deafening to marine mammals as a Saturn V moon rocket.

Today, the two sides will begin the final phase of their legal tussle in U.S. District Court over the sonar program: Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active -- or LFA for short.

Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte has already slapped a preliminary injunction against the use of LFA. The environmental plaintiffs "are likely to prevail on a number of issues" in the case, she wrote. By authorizing the Navy to test LFA in as much as 75 percent of the world's oceans, the Bush administration may have violated a number of environmental regulations, including provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Everyone in the case agrees that there's a national security argument for active sonar systems like LFA. Submarines are the ultimate stealth weapons and the greatest danger to American military and commercial ships, the Navy notes on its LFA website. "An undetected enemy submarine is an underwater terrorist, threatening any surface ship or coastline within its range."

During the Cold War, the United States used passive sonar -- microphones in the water, basically -- to listen for the relatively big, relatively loud Soviet submarines.

Today's potential adversaries -- namely North Korea, Iran and China -- have subs that are considerably smaller and less noisy. The Navy contends the only way to find these is by using active sonar -- a rig that sends out blasts of sound waves into the water and detects reflections off objects, giving away their location.

"It's like going into a dark area and flashing the lights on," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

During the Cold War, using active sonar was considered a bad idea because it would give away the location of the ship that sent out the blast.

"But when you have an entire carrier group steaming 50 miles off the coast, you're not going to hide," Pike added. "Since you've lost the element of surprise, you might as well go active."

While going active may be the smart military move, it can carry heavy environmental costs.

At least eight whales were killed in the Bahamas when the Navy tested its "53 C" active sonar in March 2000. A Navy program meant to spot ships in coastal waters is using a version of that technology, as well as adaptations of the noisy air guns used in oil and gas exploration.

With eight deafeningly loud speakers, LFA can produce up to 240 decibels of sound, according to Joel Reynolds, an NRDC attorney. That's the equivalent of standing next to a Saturn V rocket at takeoff, he said.

That's near the sonar array. But water tends to carry bass tones, like LFA's, tremendous distances. So even hundreds of miles away, LFA is still heavy-metal-concert loud at 140 decibels, Reynolds said.

Prolonged exposure to that much noise is bad for people: Musicians like Pete Townsend have had their hearing decimated by prolonged exposure.

Whales rely on their ears a lot more than humans. They use them to find mates and places to feed. So it's assumed that the loud sounds are even worse for them.

But the fact is, "we don't know how these sonars affect whales," said Bob Gisiner, who runs the Office of Naval Research's marine mammal study programs. "We know they're loud. But there are other loud sounds in the ocean."

But for the Navy to comply with the Marine Mammals Protection Act, Reynolds added, the service has to show that LFA tests have a "negligible" effect on local whales. That's something the Navy hasn't been able to do. Nor has the military been able to demonstrate they considered "all reasonable alternatives."

For now, the NRDC and the Navy have agreed to allow testing of LFA in about a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, near the Mariana Islands. Whether the military will be able to use LFA elsewhere is now in the hands of Judge Laporte.

Copyright 2003, Wired News