Navy Sonar Heads to the Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to step into the controversy over the Navy’s use of sonar in marine habitat off the coast of Southern California. Next term, the high court will hear the Navy’s appeal of a Ninth Circuit order to suspend or minimize the military exercises. 

Sonar has been blamed for whale strandings and severe injuries, though the Navy claims that the technology’s impacts are minimal and temporary. The science, however, is not what’s at the root of the case. Rather, as Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times explains, the judges will decide whether the executive branch has the right to overrule federal laws and statutes in “emergency circumstances”–the label the government used in January to claim that such exercises were necessary in a time of war. (That’s one more principle to be swept under the banner of the War on Terror.)

Military sonar is the most high-profile noise pollution in the ocean, but it’s not the only aural scourge for marine mammals. As Judith Lewis reports in our current issue, “researchers also worry about constant background noise in the sea: sound that causes little in the way of instant injury, and whose effects are harder to prove, but may have a long-term, chronic impact on marine mammals.” Think of the constant drone of cargo ships crisscrossing the globe, the seismic air guns blasting through waters as petroleum outfits hunt for oil, and the acoustic deterrents that fishing operations use to warn other animals off their nets. This noise might be preventing whales from hearing each other, finding mates, or navigating properly (which might send them crashing into ships). You should take a listen for yourself. We’ve compiled a few examples of the different sounds–natural and unnatural–ricocheting through the world’s waters in this online exclusive.

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