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Fin whale in the Gulf of Maine, North Atlantic Ocean. Photo: Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The echoes of fin whale songs can penetrate sediment and volcanic rock on the ocean floor, according to new research.

Why it matters: Fin whale songs could be used to map the Earth's crust when conventional — and in some cases, controversial — methods like firing seismic air guns from ships may not be available.

  • “It’s never going to replace air guns,” study co-author Václav Kuna of the Institute of Geophysics in Prague told the NYT.
  • “But it is a complement. And it’s free.”

Fin whales are loud — their low-frequency calls can generate more than 185 decibels underwater, on par with a large ship.

  • Researchers typically use the endangered whales' low-frequency vocalizations to study the distribution of the species (Balaenoptera physalus) in the oceans.

What they did: Kuna and John Nábelek of Oregon State University analyzed six whale songs, each with 212–593 calls that were 30–40 seconds apart.

  • The calls were picked up by a network of seismometers on the ocean floor that monitor for earthquakes off the coast of Oregon. (The researchers suggest machine learning algorithms could be used to locate and analyze calls.)
  • Part of the energy in the whales' calls is "transmitted in the ground as a seismic wave. The seismic wave travels through the oceanic crust, where it is reflected and refracted by layers within the crust," the researchers write today in the journal Science.
  • They were able to use those signals to map the thickness of sediment and rock on the ocean floor.

Yes, but: It has its limits — for example, the method worked best in relatively flat regions and the resolution of seismic images constructed from the whales' low-frequency signals was lower than the conventional air gun method.

  • The broader-frequency calls of sperm whales may produce higher-resolution imaging, the researchers suggest.

The big picture: "Our study demonstrates that animal vocalizations are useful not only for studying the animals themselves but also for investigating the environment that they inhabit," the researchers write.

Go deeper

Omicron cases confirmed in 4 U.S. states

A healthcare worker inserts a Covid-19 rapid test into a machine in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Five cases of the newly-discovered Omicron variant were detected in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday, making New York the fourth state with confirmed cases.

The latest: In addition to New York, the variant has been confirmed in California, Colorado and Minnesota.

Early winter heat shatters records in U.S., Canada

Temperature departures from average on Dec. 2, 2021, as depicted by the GFS computer model. (Weatherbell.com)

A widespread and intense heatwave is roasting large portions of the U.S. and Canada, shattering daily and monthly temperature records.

Why it matters: Winter is the fastest-warming season across the U.S., and the lingering warmth is shortening the snow season in places like Colorado and Montana, where mountain snowpack is a critical source of water during the summer months.

5 hours ago - Science

COVID time warp

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic seems like a lifetime ago to some, and just yesterday to others. Scientists are beginning to unpack the way people processed the passage of time amidst the stress, uncertainty and isolation of the 1 year, 8 months and 21 days since WHO declared a pandemic.

Why it matters: The pandemic's global effects on how people experience time could provide new insights into the brain's ability to perceive and predict time — a fundamental feature of life.