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Polar soundscape exhibition reveals rarely heard Arctic and Antarctic noises

Antarctic scientists take scheduled soundings to determine the underlying structures of the area during a snowstorm
Antarctic scientists take scheduled soundings to determine the underlying structures of the area during a snowstorm Copyright AP/AP
Copyright AP/AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
Published on Updated
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The interactive online exhibition features 54 sounds across the Antarctic and Arctic regions and can be fully explored from the warm comfort of your own living room.

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What do ‘singing’ ice, a narwhal making ‘sheep’ noises and a seal that sounds like it’s in space have in common? These bizarre tones are part of a new project offering the chance to journey to some of the most remote places on earth - through sound.

Polar Sounds, a venture between sound artists Cities and Memory, the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity and the Alfred Wegener Institute, used hydrophones located in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans to record the sounds. They aim to highlight not just harmonies from each end of the earth but to emphasise the seriousness of the effect of the climate crisis on the regions and the wider world.

Sounds recorded on the underwater microphones over two years include whale song, the noises of the little-studied Ross seal and crashing glaciers. Cities and Memory oversaw the turning of the various sounds into more than 100 compositions put together by musicians for the Polar Sounds album - creating beautiful, haunting tunes while highlighting the urgency for climate action.

Seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is taken up by oceans. They are crucial for preserving life on Earth and are currently one of the most endangered aspects of it.

Click marks the spot

Sperm whales produce a variety of clicking sounds as can be heard in this recording below.

Artists and scientists behind the project say they hope combining science and art in an accessible way will help raise awareness of this on a wider scale. They believe that turning traditionally complicated scientific study into art and music will make the impact of climate change more real to the general public - and easier to understand for everyone.

Out of all the five senses, sound is the one that travels furthest in oceans. The experts who collaborated on the venture say acoustic methods are now a critical tool to better understand the marine biodiversity within the Polar seas.

Mystic Whale love

Both the North and South Pole are warming faster than the global average which means these sounds are bringing attention to a rapidly changing environment and encouraging listeners to preserve the Poles for future generations.

Temperatures in the Arctic alone are rising four times faster than in other parts of the world. The study has found that oceans are becoming increasingly noisy due to increasing human activity which can disrupt resident sea life, some of which is getting more rare as the ice caps melt. 

Such disturbance, particularly from shipping, gas and oil explorations, and unnatural vibrations from seismic surveying guns, is quite alien from the natural sounds that have reverberated around the Arctic and Antarctic oceans for centuries.

When the ice breaks

The impressive sound of collapsing ice shelves was also recorded during the project. That’s a process which is being accelerated in some parts of both polar regions by rising temperatures linked to climate change.

The gentle yet eerie sound of ice ‘singing’ which is also an impressive feature of the collection may be beautiful to listen to, but the reason behind it is far more serious. It’s caused by ice melting and refreezing and moving in the ocean or contracting as temperatures rise and fall.

The scientists involved in this intriguing project hope that the beauty of the recordings will inspire the world to act - and act fast - to save these very special regions from permanent destruction to the detriment of the whole world.

The interactive online exhibition features 54 sounds across the Antarctic and Arctic regions and can be fully explored here.

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