Christopher Clark: Whales can be heard from 2000 miles away

“We have a lot of smart people. We have sensor systems, we have computer systems, we have satellites. All these things are there. But they’re not coherent. We need leadership; we need someone to say: here is where you fit into the puzzle.” 

Photo: Cornell University

Imagine being able to speak with your bare voice to a friend 2000 miles away. What is fiction for us is reality for whales. Christopher Clark, the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University has been listening to the oceans for more than 20 years now. As a recognized ocean acoustics scientist, he has discovered amazing things about what whales and other acoustically active inhabitants of the oceans are capable of. Visualizing the acoustics of the oceans and creating models will be one of the toughest challenges. Because sounds propagate five times faster in water than they do in air, it makes acoustic communication particularly useful for animals that live in the ocean. Thus, is important to study these communication networks, as well as the human impacts on the acoustic conditions of the ocean.

Marinexplore spoke with Christopher about his biggest moments, next goals and other thoughts related to oceans.

Erica: You’ve been studying marine mammals, acoustic communication and ocean science for many years. You’ve lead a role-model academic career. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Chris: I’m passionate about ocean health, because I believe that ocean health is linked to the health of humanity, and in turn, the health of humanity is linked to ocean health, so it’s all part of the big picture. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of discovery, interpretation of those discoveries, and translating those discoveries into a form that I can explain and can be appreciated by other human beings. So that’s what motivates me a lot of times, especially when you’re explaining something and you finally find a way of explaining it and you see the lights go on for that person. A lot of times you’re just using the wrong form of words, or you need to find a new visualization.

Erica: So thinking of new ways to present your data in order to make people understand?

Chris: Yes, and it’s also moving it out of the data regime, because one of the challenges of sciences is to translate what you know into a common language that the majority of people can understand and appreciate.

Erica: In particular with your research, can you tell us one particular example that was one of your biggest challenges?

Chris: This goes back a few years. I was trying to write this paper on communication masking. For about a decade I had wanted to return to an original paper by Payne & Webb 1971 about the idea that shipping noise might make it difficult for fin whales to communicate.

I was moving slowly with this whole concept and as I began writing I saw it becoming more and more of a tutorial, using visual examples along the way. I finally got to the point where the algorithm was taking shape, but I plotted the results and saw that they were very static. I realized that the problem that I had to overcome is that the phenomenon I was describing was dynamic in time. So, I animated it with the help of a colleague. And that was a real light going off for me. Now I’ve had multiple experiences with this where I get a chance, for example, to sit down with Jane Lubchenco and show her this concept of acoustic masking, and she immediately gets it because of that animation. So that’s what we need to do. More animations, more layers.

The next step with this sort of thing is to put in all those different dynamics, the physical forcing mechanisms, the primary productivity mechanisms, and then the ships, and the seismic, and of course the fish. So you can imagine this entire universe becoming dynamic and putting that into 3-dimensional space. I fly through sound. I imagine being blind flying through the ocean listening to things coming from different directions. So what you want is one of Sylvia Earle’s little bubble-submarines in virtual mode, being able to fly through this world and slow it down or speed it up and give people that rich experience. As soon as people see the animation they just say, “oh it’s obvious, of course”.

In our world of science we are dealing with immensely large datasets and we need to be able to manipulate them rapidly because although the emergent properties might come out with statistics, the statistics are often best revealed through statistical visualizations anyway.

Some of the motivation behind this is, how can we be engaging? Not only to the people who are in these positions now but for the 10-year olds, the moment in a kids’ life where something hooks them, something amazing happens for them, and they realize, “this is what I want to spend my time doing, I find meaning in this.”

The more we can help people find this meaning, in terms of their connectedness to the natural world – it could be geology, it could be physical oceanography, it could be living systems – but just to stimulate that lifetime of inquiry and discovery, to me that’s the greatest gift.

Erica: Are you limited by your ability to process data? 

Chris: Oh yes, we’ve definitely been limited. We’ve gone through this oscillation – for a long time we were limited by the instruments we could use to go out and collect the data. But now with flash drives and all that, we now come back with 3 terabytes of data and the question is what do we do with it?

We’ve spent a lot of time in the last 3 years working on the computational side, whether it’s high-performance computing, automatic classification or detection regimes. We’ve been on the leading edge of “advanced machine learning” because it has not been applied to acoustics until now. We use it to get through this barrier where we’d have to spend a lot of time doing computational processing. Now these advances will get you the first step there, something that used to take 30 days now takes an hour and a half. But now we have to visualize this, now we have to integrate it.

One thing we are deficient in is what I call “quantitative ecologists,” people who have strong applied mathematics and statistical skills, but who also understand evolutionary ecology and behavioral ecology. Instead of going to Wall Street, these people want to use their skills to learn something about these complex life systems. There aren’t enough of these people, that’s where I see a huge need.

Erica: We’re not limited with the amount of data we have, and we’re not limited by our automatic detection algorithms, but what we need are the people who can find meaning in the datasets?

Chris: Yes, they are the maestros who will put it all together. We actually have weaknesses in all the steps you just mentioned. We are limited by our data in some areas. I’ll give you an example, we were recently challenged to put together all the acoustic layers of the US EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, which is bigger than the continental United States).

So we narrowed it down to the Gulf of Mexico, and we start looking at the datasets and realize that they are incomplete. In this case you do one of three things, you make assumptions about the missing pieces, knowing that your assumptions may lead to some false conclusions, or you go back and get more data, or you scale back the resolution at which you can accurately make a statement.

For the Gulf of Mexico we were able to generate a map showing the annual average of anthropogenic noise originally at 60 mile by 60 mile resolution, now we’ve got it down to 10 mile by 10 mile resolution for the entire Gulf of Mexico. And you see that the ocean noise is dominated by shipping – the Gulf of Mexico is a mess and you just wonder, how does anything survive there. So we are data rich, but when you’re talking about large-scale phenomena like shipping in the Gulf of Mexico you realize that we are still undersampled.

Erica: What was the biggest surprise that you found in your data at any point in your career?

Chris: Oh, that’s easy. That was the experience of being given a one-day tour inside the Naval Ocean Processing Facility back in 1991. In those days everything was done on machines, not computers, they were generating these continuous visual records. Having spent time sitting around the campfire in Patagonia with colleagues talking about long-distance ocean communication in a very romantic setting, and then finally being in this facility that was sort of like out of a sci-fi movie, there I was looking at this piece of paper that was a rendering of a spectrogram. We saw a spectrogram of a blue whale singing in the Atlantic and I looked at this particular pattern and the Lieutenant explained where it was coming from and what direction it was coming from. Then we went to another set of sensors and I realized, if I crossed those two beams, there should be a whale out there and I should see this same pattern. I did that, and literally the hair went up on the back of my neck and I realized this animal was communicating across an entire ocean. We were in Bermuda and listening to it in the Grand Banks. And I realized, these people do this all the time.

Then I gave him the following specifications – a signal that’s 20 Hz, 180 dB, 20 seconds long, and the guy goes “with that signal I could illuminate the entire ocean.” That was when I realized that the scale of this phenomenon of acoustic communication in whales. It’s an entire ocean, it’s 2000 miles! We had talked about long-range communication before, but that was when I finally witnessed it. That moment really has shaped my entire sense of scale.

Erica: What is the most rewarding scientific discovery or experience you’ve had in your career? 

Chris: What comes to mind are the moments when I’ve had some sort of physical experience, either when I was in Argentina working down there for 2 years in the middle of nowhere in this absolutely spectacular place. Or living on the Arctic ice where everything is freezing but absolutely magical. Or the time I spent on a fishing boat in the Sea of Cortez working with blue whales and fin whales, and there you’re intimate, you’re smelling and feeling them, you’re right there. Those are some of the most spiritual moments that I can remember. Those, tied with that sense of discovery, wonder – if someone has never experienced that, it’s hard to explain, and if they have – they get it right away. I’ll wait 5 years for the chance to have moments like that.

Erica: What in your opinion is the most immediate obstacle or problem facing marine scientists today and what should we do about it? 

Chris: Ego. If you think of us as a “super-organism” of scientists, then we have to put aside our individual egos and competitive nature. It takes a special form of facilitation and leadership and a special combination of people to actually go beyond our egos. Because when you do form a super-organism of people, when you actually form a true collaboration, where we trust each other completely and implicitly, it’s really amazing.

Erica: If you had a team of all your most trusted colleagues, all the best problem-solvers in the world and all the tools necessary to analyze your data, what would you want to accomplish? 

Chris: Save the ocean.

Erica: Well, what does that mean to you? What do we do first? Do we have the right tools? 

Chris: We definitely have many of the tools – certainly there is unequivocal evidence pointing to the direction we’re going which is unsustainable – in terms of fisheries, multiple stressors, pollutants, etc. – the massive abuse that has been going on with the ocean. Science is now showing us that this is the case.

We have a lot of smart people. We have sensor systems, we have computer systems, we have satellites. All these things are there. But they’re not coherent. We need leadership; we need someone to say “here is where you fit into the puzzle.”

Erica: What if the return on the investment was “ocean health”? Is that possible?

Chris: Well yes, exactly. There are arguments that say in order to flip this we have to make an economic, capitalistic approach. Make a cost-benefit analysis, but the naysayers tend to knock the costs. So then it comes down to a belief system.

One of the most important features of all this is that we have to provide hope. That is one of the biggest challenges in all this. When I hear stories about these little islands of hope that are popping up – little towns that are becoming energy neutral and proud of it, these are the examples we need to hear about. What we have to demonstrate is that places that were once over the brink can come back; humans can make decisions that are responsible. And that we as scientists can provide markers that if we do the following we will see improvement. But it’s going to take time.

Erica: So we have to instill a sense of patience too.

Chris: Right.

I’ve seen examples where fishermen and environmentalists have formed cooperatives because they would rather work together than have the federal government put in a regulation. The fishermen admitted that they used to hate the environmentalists but they’ve now realized that this is the only way it’s going to work. You have to start bottom-up, it’s not going to come from some law. It’s going to come from you and me realizing, people can do this. I’m not going to try to outcompete my neighbor, I’m not going to try to steal from him, because the only way this is going to work is if we work together to form a community.

Erica: What is the biggest single threat to marine life?

Chris: Ocean acidification. It’s going to get us before temperature change.

Erica: What do you hope research in your field will achieve in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?

Chris: I hope that we can contribute to a sense of enrichment, to provide people with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ocean as a living organism. It is what sustains us, that’s it.  The question is, how do you give someone living far from the oceans, say Kansas City, the experience of being in the ocean, of loving the ocean?

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