The Art and Science of Sound in The Sea

 On a muggy day in June of 2018, after two and a half weeks at sea, the Research Vessel Endeavor’s crew, the science team, and I pulled into our last study site off the coast of Virginia. The weather was warm and overcast; the sea was calm. Dr. Miksis-Olds had just given the word to “pop the lander,” which meant to release the equipment anchored on the ocean floor. All us scanned the immediate vicinity, looking for the orange floats attached to the underwater microphones and other equipment. The equipment’s 20-minute journey to the surface was a waiting game we had performed successfully six other times: finding and retrieving the equipment, downloading the data it collected, and plunging the equipment back to the ocean floor to continue collecting data.  

Preparing the hydrophone (underwater microphone) equipment to be deployed off the back deck

But this time, as soon as Jen gave the word to release the lander, everything changed. The wind shifted, the sea became more turbulent, a heavy rain drenched us, and a curtain of fog descended.  All of this made finding the equipment a huge challenge.

This is science at sea: unpredictable, challenging, nerve wracking and exciting.

The R.V. Endeavor

I am not a scientist. Rather, I make art about science and my work takes me out of the studio to places like this: a three-week expedition where scientists worked around the clock to uncover the mysteries of the ocean sound scape using the science of sound: acoustics. And I want to explain it—through art.

Art and science are deeply human endeavors. Communicating scientific research to the public needs imaginative, creative storytelling that connects scientific discoveries to the human experience. My studio practice draws inspiration from researchers who are working to describe the marine ecosystem by listening into what is happening beneath the surface of the ocean.

Images can touch people in ways words cannot. By using my training as an artist, I work to create engaging art that helps the public approach this intimidating subject. 

For many people, science seems like an insurmountable subject. One of those people was me, but this changed when I realized I could use my training as an artist to learn scientific concepts.

Earlier in my career, I had been painting views of the Chicago area waterways, but I had been editing out things like parking lots, power lines and buildings. I wanted to portray an idealized view of the waterway.

But then one day, while canoeing on the Chicago Canal, my husband and I passed a beautiful, engineered waterfall, the SEPA station. I later learned it was built to add oxygen to the sluggish canal.  This did not look like any ordinary fountain I had ever seen; someone had spent a large amount of money to build this structure. Yet, it was in such an obscure location.  The structure nagged at me, and it was at that moment that I felt compelled to learn its purpose and how Chicago manages its water.

The SEPA Station

Finding out who built this structure and why led me to the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant in Stickney, IL. After attending seminars, workshops and speaking with scientists and engineers, I realized that I could learn enough engineering to create art that tells the real story of water in a dense urban area. 

This will sound strange, but yes, I fell in love with science in the middle of a wastewater treatment plant.

When I was looking for another water-based project, I had a conversation with Dr. Derek Olson, an ocean researcher who also happens to be my son, and he suggested I look into working with the science of sound: Ocean Acoustics.  He knew Dr. Miksis-Olds was looking for an artist, and after several conversations, she invited me to work on the R.V. Endeavor. Space on ocean research vessels is at a premium, and my invitation came with a caveat: I would be participating in the science and working side by side with researchers. 

Why do ocean researchers use sound to study life at sea?

At sea, our eyes don’t serve us well because light only penetrates a few hundred meters under water. Visibility falls off dramatically in deeper water, so the kinds of visual observations that biologists use to study ecosystems on land don’t work as well in the water. Rather, studying what is happening under the ocean requires a different approach: listening for sound. The field of ocean acoustics uses sound to describe what’s happening in the ocean soundscape.

 A soundscape is just like a landscape: it’s a picture of what’s happening in the ocean environment. But instead of using images, it uses sound to describe the ecosystem. Scientists collect sounds from biologic life, human sound (shipping), and abiotic sounds like wind waves, ice and seismic activity.  The data collected illuminates life in the ocean from the perspective of the organisms that inhabit the ocean.

Our monitoring project used both passive and active acoustics.

“Active Acoustics”

Active acoustics uses sound to visualize what life forms inhabit the water column. The ship transmits a ping of sound down into the water and the data collected helps scientists understand what life forms are found in at a particular depth in the ocean. 

On the art work, I included the ping and returning sound waves. You can see the orderly waves emanating from the equipment and radiating down into the water column. In the panels, you can see what happens to the energy waves as they bump into the organisms and send back a unique sonic signature to the ship.

Here is an example of what the data looks like. This is an echogram recorded by Dr. Warren’s night crew:

Active acoustics data from a three-hour evening migration

One example of how active acoustics illuminates ocean life is how it describes a particularly dramatic event. The deep scattering layer (several meters below the surface) is a mix of tiny life forms: zooplankton, small fish and squids. Zooplankton and small fish form the foundation of the ocean food chain, which means they are food for many predators. They travel a daily migration route to the surface of the ocean at sunset where they feed all night. At dawn, they scoot back down to the gloom a few hundred meters down to hide from predators. They do this to survive because in the open ocean, there is nowhere to hide.

In addition to the active acoustics data collected on our trip, the night crew also cast nets behind the ship hundreds of meters deep to collect samples of these organisms. By learning what organisms actually inhabit different layers in the ocean and comparing that data with the echo sounder data, scientists can “ground truth” their findings. Ground truthing is important to ocean scientists because different variables like turbulence in the water could cause patterns to show up in the acoustic data that look like they came from living things. Without learning what organisms inhabit which layers, it is difficult to say anything specific about the environment with acoustic data alone. Studying these vital organisms helps scientists discover the health and vitality of ocean ecosystems.  

When designing my art, I’m thinking about the traditional elements of art design: line, color, texture unity, and rhythm. I also think about textile materials and techniques that will support the scientific concepts included in the art work. I knew early on that I wanted to work with a particular kind of silk weave called dupioni. This silk fabric has a pronounced yarn in one direction, and I exploited this characteristic so the surface of the art would shimmer like the light on the ocean surface.

Historically, heavily- embroidered and beaded clothing would have been created as a sign of status among royalty and the wealthy. By using these labor-intensive processes, I am creating a visual link that helps elevate the status of the science content I’m illuminating.

The second part of this project captures the power of passive acoustics to advance our understanding of the ocean soundscape.  

Because of their limited visibility, marine mammals and fish are highly adapted to producing and perceiving sound in the ocean. Animals rely on sound for many purposes, such as navigation, social interactions, establishing dominance, finding food, and attracting mates. To collect passive acoustic data, researchers use underwater microphones called hydrophones. The equipment listens in on marine life in all directions. Sounds generated by humans, such as shipping and seismic sounds are picked up as well.

To hear some of these sounds collected by the hydrophones, you can visit the ADEON audio gallery.

I’ve interpreted the hydrophone data using embroidery and beading. The ocean is a noisy environment, and I’ve included this ambient sound in an all-over stitching pattern.  The middle of the art work is a stand-in for the equipment that houses the hydrophones. I’ve included data from humpback whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. The center of the work also illustrates a seismic event and shipping sounds.

Around the edges of the piece, I wanted to represent a dramatic feature of the ocean soundscape: the SOFAR channel, the layer of the ocean where low-frequency sounds can travel long distances. (SOFAR stands for a SOund Fixing And Ranging transmission)

The ocean is divided into horizontal layers in which the speed of sound is influenced by warmer temperatures in upper layers and higher pressures in the deeper layers. As the temperature decreases at lower depths, the speed of sound decreases. But the lower down you go, the pressure increases, and the speed of sound increases. The SOFAR channel is a sweet spot where low frequency sounds travel at an optimal speed over vast distances. The sound bends up and down between warmer areas above and areas of greater pressure below. Marine mammals like whales exploit the SOFAR channel to communicate across oceans. The SOFAR channel carries sound so well that low frequency whale songs can travel from Florida to Nova Scotia.

When creating art about science, I am acutely aware of the divide separating science and art, and I’m careful about accurately representing scientific research. There are strict rules that define what activities get to be called scientific. A scientist has to be able to objectively look at the data without overlaying her own opinions and feelings so that she can examine it empirically.

But before an experiment begins and after the data has been analyzed, there is plenty of room to connect science with human experience. Art has the ability to connect us with our human nature; flawed, messy and emotional. The goal of this project is to lure in people who are intimidated by science with handsome art and blow their minds with cool ocean science.

The science crew aboard the R.V. Endeavor

Dr. Miksis- Olds provided me with the opportunity to participate in and be inspired by the science conducted aboard the RV Endeavor. I not only had a terrific adventure; I learned the value of using ocean acoustics to expand our understanding of ocean ecosystems. Translating this information into textile art offered a meaningful intersection for my studio practice. I’ve created art that celebrates science and informs the public about ocean research.

Now I want others to understand what I have learned: that you don’t need a Ph.D. to fall in love with science.

Special thanks to the University of New Hampshire and the Center for Acoustics Research and Education for their support of the project.

Lindsay’s artistic practice grows out of an intense curiosity about the ways our society is supported by science and technology. She has worked as Fermi National Accelerator’s first artist in residence, CERN, with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the Field Museum and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her current work grows out of a three-week research cruise with the RV Endeavor with scientists using acoustics to study the ocean soundscape.  Her work is currently touring in Europe and the US and can be seen at many science outreach events. Lindsay teaches textiles at Columbia College Chicago. Learn more about Lindsay’s work at LindsayOlsonArt.com.

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