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A baby blue whale. Photo: Patrick Dykstra/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Blue whales are changing their tune, according to a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

Why it matters: The global decline in the pitch of whale songs has been a mystery, with chief suspects being the increase in ocean noise from shipping, submarines and underwater resource exploration. The new study, however, suggests other factors may be behind the trend.

Details: The researchers found that a seasonal variation to Antarctic blue whales' pitch correlates with breaking sea ice in the southern Indian Ocean, suggesting that seasonally they're laboring to make their voices heard above the crackling and grinding sounds of breaking ice.

  • Only male blue whales sing, and their hums can be about as loud as large ships.
  • A single blue whale's sounds can travel for 600 miles underwater, enabling whales to communicate with one another across long distances.

What they did: The paper analyzed more than 1 million songs from three species of large baleen whales: fin, Antarctic blue and three acoustically distinct populations of pygmy blue whales.

  • Six stationary underwater microphones recorded the calls over 6 years, from 2010 to 2015, in the southern Indian Ocean, an area spanning 3.5 million square miles.
  • The study's authors analyzed the pitch of selected elements of each species’ song.

What they found: Between 2002 and 2015, the pitch of blue whales' calls had fallen by "about a whole tone or major second interval in Western music tradition," the press release states.

This trend is intriguing, but has not yet had major consequences.

  • The fact that the pitch drop was observed in the southern Indian Ocean, where ship noise has decreased in recent years, suggests an uptick in global ocean noise is not the cause of the downward trend in whale pitches.
  • Instead, increasing blue whale populations could be resulting in a natural shift in volume, since whales may not need to sing as loudly to reach another whale.

“They can decrease their call intensity to keep in touch, because there are more whales," Emmanuelle Leroy, lead author of the new study and a research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said in a press release. "These calls are long distance communication.”

Go deeper

53 mins ago - World

Scoop: Iran preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Israel warns U.S.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference. Photo: Presidency of Iran handout via Getty

Israel has shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon, two U.S. sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: Enriching to 90% would bring Iran closer than ever to the nuclear threshold. The Israeli warnings come as nuclear talks resume in Vienna, with Iran returning to the negotiating table on Monday after a five-month hiatus.

Biden: Fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday said that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

Driving the news: Biden said later this week the administration will be releasing a strategy on how "we're going to fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: WHO says Omicron poses "very high" risk — Fauci says Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S. — U.S. restricts air travel from 8 countries over Omicron concerns.
  2. Politics: Biden says fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns."
  3. States: New York declares state of emergency amid concerns over Omicron.
  4. World: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating worldWHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries — First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.