Ocean 'Snapshot' Taken With Sound Waves

Close-up of a wave breaking at Waimea on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
Ron Dahlquist/Corbis

The uppermost reaches of the ocean could be rapidly scanned in groundbreaking high detail using acoustic techniques, researchers say. The method resembles that employed to probe the deep Earth.

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For more than a century, geologists have used sound waves to investigate Earth's interior, analyzing how these waves reflect off different layers of rock. Recently, such seismic imaging has become commonly used by oceanographers. They employ the technique to analyze fine-scale ocean structures — thin layers of water only 3 feet (1 meter) or so thick that vary in temperature and salinity (salt content). These layers can pop up in currents, swirls and the boundaries separating currents or masses of water.

Ocean Awesomeness

Until now, most seismic imaging of the ocean focused on depths below 500 feet (150 m). This is because structures further up in the water reflect sound only weakly, and there are many sources of noise in shallow depths that can muddle analyses, such as shipping vessels or the breaking of waves. Still, many valuable insights about the ocean waters closest to most human activity potentially awaited scientists who could seismically image shallow waters.

Now marine geophysicist Helen Piété at the University of Brest in France and her colleagues have devised a way to scan the upper ocean at depths of 30 to 500 feet (10 to 150 m). (Infographic: Tallest Mountain to Deepest Ocean Trench)

"These results are very exciting, not only because they provide the first actual imaging of shallow oceanographic structures, but also because they're the result of many unsuccessful attempts," Piété told LiveScience.

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Beating the odds

One key factor in the research team's strategy to image the upper ocean is a powerful transmitter of acoustic energy. Another is a receiver that can pick up multiple channels of sound, to help overcome interference from ambient noise. The scientists also made sure the acoustic wavelengths they used matched the thickness of the ocean features they investigated.

A major challenge the researchers faced was that many of the technical aspects of the device's design had contradictory requirements, calling for a series of compromises to make things work.

"When we started working on this project, many people were very skeptical about our chances," Piété said.

The scientists tested their system on the continental shelf off western Brittany in France. From April to October, the warmer upper waters and the colder lower depths at this location become separated by a layer of water known as a thermocline.

"It took us almost four years and four scientific cruises to set up and test the device that we used for this study," Piété said.

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