Aarhus University Seal

New major research project to bring about quiet seas

Over the next four years, a major new EU project will examine how noise from shipping affects the marine environment and identify solutions to make ships quieter. Project SATURN has participants from ten countries, and researchers from AU will play a key role.

[Translate to English:] En grindehval har en blå og gul plastic-æske sat fast med sugekopper på ryggen, som rager lidt op i vandoverfladen.
Research project SATURN will result in new standards for ships that bother marine animals as little as possible with noise. Foto: Colourbox.
Et kemikalietankskib på åbent hav.
A pilot whale with a D-tag attached. The tag records the noise to which the whale is exposed, and registers its movements by means of e.g. GPS, depth gauge and motion sensors. This is one of the tasks that researchers from AU are responsible for. Photo: Pernille Tønnesen, AU
Et kort over Nordsøen viser med farver, hvor der er mest skibsstøj. Det er værst i farvandet mellem Storbritannien, Holland og Belgien, ud for den britiske østkyst og ud for den nordlige del af den jyske vestkyst.
Based on measurements, TNO has calculated the noise level in the North Sea. The map shows so-called Excess, which is a measure of how much the ship noise has raised the background noise above the natural noise from wind and waves. Yellow color indicates a high noise level, dark blue a low noise level. Graphics: TNO

Aarhus University is a key partner in a major new EU project called SATURN (Solutions AT Underwater Radiated Noise) which, over the next four years, will examine how noise from shipping affects the marine environment, and identify concrete solutions to make ships quieter, for example with new designs of ship propellers and hulls.

The research requires experts in many disciplines, and the project's 20 partners from ten European countries consist of researchers in acoustics and marine biology as well as ship engineers, standardisation bodies, government bodies and NGOs.

From Denmark, three groups from Aarhus University will be participating in a close collaboration. Their tasks are to measure how much seals and whales in nature are exposed to ship noise, how they react to the noise, and how to design models for what noise from shipping means for the long-term survival of the animals:

  • Department of Biology - Section for Zoophysiology (Professor Peter Teglberg Madsen),
  • Department of Bioscience, Section for Marine Mammals Research (Head of Section Jacob Nabe-Nielsen and senior researchers Jakob Tougaard and Jonas Teilmann)
  • Aarhus University, Institute for Advanced Studies (Fellow and Associate Professor Mark Johnson).

"The Danish participation in a central part of the project emphasises that Aarhus University is at the forefront in Europe within marine bioacoustics and the effects of underwater noise on the marine environment," says Jakob Tougaard, who, in addition to research into marine mammals at AU, is part of the EU expert panel for underwater noise: TG - Noise (Technical Group - Noise).

Advanced measuring equipment

The research conducted by the AU researchers will take place by attaching small packages with advanced measuring equipment on seals, porpoise and pilot whales. The equipment records the noise to which the animals are exposed and registers the movements of the animals using GPS, depth gauges and motion sensors, for example.

The measurements on seals and whales will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover and Universidad de la Laguna (on Tenerife).

Researchers from Leiden University and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona will measure how fish and invertebrates react to noise from shipping.

In this context, SATURN is an acronym for "Solutions AT Underwater Radiated Noise".
The project will run for four years, led by Research Fellow Gerry Sutton at MaREI (Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine) at University College Cork, Ireland.
It is being funded with EUR 9 million, corresponding to DKK 67 million, from the EU research and innovation programme Horizon2020. 

"On the other hand, seabirds are not in the studies. We know too little about whether they use their hearing under water," adds Jakob Tougaard.

Noise is not just noise

After days or weeks, when the researchers get the measuring the equipment back, they will be able to compare the measurements of ship noise with the reactions of the animals, and identify any correlations between exposure and behaviour.  In this way, they can determine precisely what characteristics of ship noise the animals react to.

Of course, the volume of the noise is important, but other characteristics such as frequency and the variability of the noise over time are probably also important for how the animals react.

"We need to be sure that what we call quiet ships are also quiet for the animals. This may sound trivial, but it's not. We need to know what the animals are hearing, and which parts of the sound they find troublesome. This is what Peter Teglberg Madsen and Mark Johnson's groups will be clarifying by measuring how animals react to specific types of noise," explains Jakob Tougaard.

These critical characteristics of the noise will be passed on to the other partners in the project, including ship engineers from Italy (Cetena), the Netherlands (Marin and Wärtsiilä) and France (Naval Group), whose work involves developing and testing new ship propellers, hulls and damping systems to reduce ship noise.

Models for survival

The data will also help us understand how repeated disturbance for the same seal or the same porpoise leads to lower food consumption and lower survival rates for their calves and pups.

The overall effect of many disturbances on the entire population can be simulated in a computer model, and this is what Aarhus University has developed. The model is called the DEPONS model, and it will be converted to fit the SATURN project in close collaboration with Dutch TNO, which has built up a detailed model of shipping noise in the North Sea.

Strategy for quiet Ships

The EU Marine Strategy Directive obligates Denmark and the other EU countries to monitor ship noise in our waters, to set environmental targets for how much noise the environment is exposed to, and to regulate the noise sources to ensure compliance with environmental targets.

Further to this, the last part of SATURN entails developing criteria for classifying ships as quiet vessels – i.e. ships that do not affect the marine environment unnecessarily with noise. Norwegian Veritas and Bureau Veritas are key partners in this context, as they are responsible for internationally recognised classification of ships.



Senior researcher Jakob Tougaard
Department of Bioscience, section for Marine Mammal Research
Aarhus University

Phone: +45 4098 4585
E-mail: jat@bios.au.dk


Associate Professor Mark Johnson
Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies/
Institut for Biologi – Zoofysiologi
Aarhus University
Email: markjohnson@bios.au.dk