The Art & Science of Sound in the Sea
By Lindsay Olson, guest contributor
On a muggy day in June of 2018, after two and a half weeks at sea, the Research Vessel Endeavor crew and science team pulled in to our last study site off the coast of Virginia. The weather was warm and overcast: the sea state calm. Dr. Miksis-Olds had just given the word to 'pop the lander' and all us scanned the immediate vicinity, searching for the orange floats attached to the hydrophones and data collection equipment. This 20-minute journey to the surface was a waiting game we had performed successfully six other times... siting and retrieving the lander, downloading the data and plunging the equipment back to the ocean floor to continue collecting data.
But this time, as soon as Jen gave the word to release the lander, everything changed. The wind shifted, the sea state kicked up, 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.
I make art about science and my work takes me out of the studio to places like this: a ship at sea for three weeks where scientists worked round the clock to uncover the mysteries of the ocean sound scape using acoustics. And I want to explain it - through art.
Art and science are deeply human endeavors. How scientific research is communicated to the public needs imaginative, creative storytellers who connect scientific discoveries to human experience. My studio practice is inspired by researchers 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 an intimidating subject: scientific research.
For many people, science seems like an insurmountable subject. One of those people includes 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 idealized views of the Chicago area waterways, but I had been editing out the built environment. Shortly after this, my husband and I bought a canoe.
One day while canoeing on the Cal Sag Canal, we passed a beautiful SEPA station. This did not look like any ordinary fountain I had ever seen. Someone had spent a large amount of money to build this structure but it was in such an obscure location. The structure nagged at me and I wanted to know more about it.
The process of finding out who built this structure and why led me to the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant in Stickney, Illinois. After months of interviewing engineers, talking to scientists, and attending workshops and lectures, I realized I could learn enough engineering to create art work that tells the real story of water in a dense urban area.
This will sound strange, but I actually fell in love with science in the middle of a waste water treatment plant.
After two intense years of working on several non-water related projects, I wanted to get back to my watery roots. I was not sure what direction I wanted to move in but after a conversation with Dr. Derek Olson (who happens to be my son, and is one of my science collaborators for this project) he suggested I think about ocean acoustics research. He also knew of a scientist looking for an artist. He introduced me to Jen, she invited me to work with her team at sea aboard the R. V. Endeavor and a new sci-art adventure was born.
Why use ocean acoustics to study marine environments?
We are visual creatures. But at sea, 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 terrestrial ecosystems is not particularly illuminating. Studying what is happening under the ocean requires a different approach. Ocean Acoustics uses sound to describe what’s happening in the ocean soundscape.
Land ecologists study landscape, geology, and weather. Ocean acousticians talk about soundscapes. A sound scape is just like a landscape... it’s a picture of what’s happening in the ocean environment using sound instead of images to describe the ecosystem. Scientists collect sounds from biological life, human's sound (shipping), and abiotic sounds like wind, waves, ice, and seismic activity.
Our project used both passive and active acoustics. This natural divide inspired me to create two large-scale textile pieces.
What is active acoustics?
Active acoustics uses sound to visualize what life forms inhabit the water column. A ping of sound is transmitted down from the ship and those sound waves collide into the life forms that inhabit the water column. The returning echoes (sound waves) help define the life forms found in a particular layer of the ocean.
On the Active Acoustics art work, I’ve included the echosounders ping and returning sound waves. You can see the orderly waves emanating from the equipment and radiating down into the water column. When the energy waves bump into the organisms the energy waves send back a unique sonic signature that is recorded in an echogram.
This is an echogram recorded by senior scientist, Dr. Joseph Warren and his team. You can see why I was inspired by images like these.
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, but this also means they themselves 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. This is a very cleaver survival strategy 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. Data from the net tows was compared with the data collected from the echosounder. Comparing these two data sets is called 'ground truthing'. Ground truthing is important to ocean scientists because different variables like organisms or turbulence in the water could cause similar patterns to show up in the data. Without an independent verification, 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. I have a particular fondness for all denizens of the Plankton that live in this top layer of the ocean. Including tiny photosynthesizing life forms called phytoplankton.
Our project incorporated data collected by NASA satellites on seasonal phytoplankton blooms. Phytoplankton supply half our planet’s oxygen (the border surrounding the phytoplankton illustrates O2 molecules) and sequester tons of carbon dioxide (this is not hyperbole). They are also the foundation of the entire ocean food chain. Very little is known about their life cycles but as oceans warm and ocean acidification rises, these foundational organisms are increasingly imperiled. Their fate is intimately tied with the fate of all organisms in the ocean.
Correlating the acoustics data, the net tows of organisms found in the water column and the NASA images of seasonal phytoplankton blooms gives a comprehensive view of marine life in the study area.
When setting up a project, I often draw inspiration from numerous historical and artistic sources. The embroidery artist Lissy Funk’s work was a revelation and inspired me to work on larger embroidery pieces for this project.
Before I left on the research trip, I had the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see the work of Lissy Funk. The textile staff at the museum were kind enough to roll out her monumental works so I could study them. Funk lived in Switzerland and was born at the turn of the previous century. She created over 100 works including large commissions for churches and city centers. Monumental embroideries like these are rare and labor intensive. Her work is even larger than the famous Bayeux tapestry created in 1066.
Lissy Funk’s unique compositions and production techniques defy categorization and were outside mainstream art trends. Her work remains fresh and unique even today.
Throughout the world, indigenous, traditional, Native American Indians, and First Nation peoples have held a special understanding and relationship to bodies of water. Each group's understanding of water is informed by their local environment, their world view, and their cultural history. One specific example is that of the Maya, whose communities were established throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
For the Maya - both past and present - the oceans, rivers, and bodies of water were a means of transportation connecting them to a variety of natural resources.
However, all of these bodies of water were equated with a manifestation of the cosmos before the creation of their world, at a time when all that existed was a vast primordial sea.
Images engraved in stone stela and painted on pottery from the classical period depict swirling water motifs, water creatures, and woven bands of water droplets as well as numerous symbols of the underworld.
The Maya’s powerful artistic expression of their connection to water as both a cosmic and an earthly expression inspired the design of my art pieces.
My materials and techniques are as important to me as the scientific content. I knew early on that I wanted to work with a particular kind of silk weave called dupioni. This fabric has a pronounced grain line and I exploited this characteristic so that 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 to elevate the status of the science content I’m illuminating.
What is passive acoustics?
The second part of this project captures the power of passive acoustics to advance our understanding of the ocean soundscape.
Because of 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, maintaining social interactions, finding food, and attracting a mate. Passive acoustics uses underwater microphones called hydrophones to collect data. The equipment collects information in all directions and listens in on marine life: including sounds generated by marine mammals, sounds of human activity, seismic activity, and abiotic sounds like wind ice and waves.
I’ve interpreted the hydrophone data using embroidery and beading. The ocean is a noisy environment, and I’ve included the ambient sound in all over stitching pattern. The middle of the art work is a stand in for the equipment that housed the hydrophones. Surrounding the center, I’ve included the data from humpback whale and several other marine mammals.
Science at Sea
As an artist, I’m always interested in what science looks like. I’ve worked with scientists in a number of terrestrial labs but science at sea poses some unique challenges.
For starters, heavy equipment is deployed and retrieved by cranes on a constantly rolling, heaving surface. Every member of our ships compliment needed to stay alert. Every time we stepped on the deck to accomplish a task, we needed to remember our safety training. I never forgot that the ocean is a hostile environment for humans.
One of the things that impressed me the most was how well the ship’s crew, the science crew, the equipment and even the ship itself, functioned like a highly choreographed marine ballet in the service of science. Working at sea requires team work, patience, and generosity among crew mates.
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 the 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 connects us with our human nature... flawed, messy and emotional. The goal of this project is to lure in science-phobic people with handsome art, and blow their minds with cool ocean science.
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.