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Listening to the Earth

Michel André

Since designing an underwater system to prevent ships from colliding with whales, bioacoustics pioneer Michel André has expanded his project to create a network of microphones that monitor the planet’s myriad sounds and warn of threats to nature.

Girdling the Earth – from the deep oceans, remote rainforests and distant deserts, to the loneliest caverns and icy poles – a growing network of electronic ears listens for signs of trouble.

This initiative is the brainchild of French bioacoustics scientist Michel André, who in 2002 received a Rolex Award for Enterprise to design a system to alert ships to the danger of colliding with whales. It has since grown into a listening project that spans the entire planet.

“Humans have lost the capacity to listen to nature and the messages it gives us through sound,” André says. “We now have this unique opportunity to understand what needs to be done so we do not jeopardize the future of our world.”

We now have this unique opportunity to understand what needs to be done so we do not jeopardize the future of our world.Michel André

Fascinated as a child with the strange sounds of sea creatures, he has become an international pioneer in the field of bioacoustics – the art and science of listening to life.

In the late 1990s, concerned about the increasing collisions between passenger ferries and sperm whales off the Canary Islands, André devised an underwater system to listen for the giant mammals and alert ship captains if one lay in their path. He also discovered the whales were losing their hearing due to the rising tumult of human-generated noise in the oceans – engines, sonar and underwater blasting.

This led to the development of his Listen to the Deep-Ocean Environment (LIDO) project, a worldwide network of deep-sea microphones that listens round the clock to the oceans’ acoustic environment, detecting human noise pollution and differentiating it from the natural sounds of sea life or geological events.

André describes three steps in creating his Earth listening system:

develop sensitive, robust microphones suited to their surroundings, be it the deep sea, a rainforest or a desert;

– continually monitor and interpret both natural and human sounds by using artificial intelligence and machine learning;

– warn, in real time, of sounds that indicate a threat to nature from human and other sources.

Such a system enables André to constantly track threats to nature, including the felling of trees in the Amazon, poaching in Africa or severe industrial noise in the oceans. To provide early warning of trouble, he can also compare the natural sounds of places where there is no human interference with those impacted by our activity. Satellites, he says, can see trees being felled but they cannot detect changes in the life of the forest. Sound can, however.

Fresh applications for his listening network have arisen out of André’s collaborations with fellow Laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He is working with environmentalist Arun Krishnamurthy to prevent trains from hitting elephants in India, and with Italian caver Francesco Sauro to pioneer the new scientific field of speleo-acoustics, which involves listening to the sounds in some of the world’s deepest and remotest caves.

In the Amazon, a partnership with the team of late conservationist José Márcio Ayres, a fellow 2002 Rolex Awards Laureate, yields data that helps local guardians of the forest – specifically of the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve – monitor the health of its ecosystems.

The Laureates, he says, form a family that shares its challenges and works together to solve them.

From his Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, André surveys the world of sounds provided by his spreading network of microphones.

“A few years ago, we were addressing nature in its separate aspects. We were isolating data from the ocean, from the rainforest, from the desert,” he recalls. “Now, thanks to the global network of sensors that are continuously checking the health of nature, we can state what must be done to prevent a threat due to climate change or human activities.

“We can listen to nature from anywhere in the world. From the comfort of our home we can access the sounds of the rainforest in the Amazon, the sounds of the Arctic or Antarctica. We can go to Africa, we can go underwater, we can go anywhere, at the same time.”

André’s global sound monitoring system is a perfect example of what the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative stands for. “I love the concept of perpetual,” he says. “Nature is perpetual. Nature never ends and I do not think there is an end to our approach with the study of sound.

Nature never ends and I do not think there is an end to our approach with the study of sound.Michel André

“We need to listen to nature. Technology has given us this capacity but we need to be aware of our responsibility. We cannot just listen and ignore what is going on. We need to listen and we need to take action for the conservation of the planet.”

PUBLISHED IN 2002

Ocean noise rings alarm bells

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