Joint military and industry efforts to develop new ocean technologies and infrastructure—which engineers and advocates call the “smart ocean”—will have lethal consequences for whales, significantly undermining their “indispensable role” in sequestering carbon and mitigating climate catastrophe, Koohan Paik-Mander reported in December 2021.
Whales “enable oceans to sequester a whopping 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year,” Paik-Mander wrote. But “year-round, full-spectrum military practices” undertaken by the US Department of Defense have “fast-tracked us toward a cataclysmic environmental tipping point.”
Whales have a symbiotic relationship with phytoplankton, which form the base of marine food webs. As whales dive and surface, their movements act as pumps, “bringing essential nutrients from the ocean depths” to the surface, “where sunlight enables phytoplankton to flourish and reproduce,” Paik-Mander explained. This photosynthesis promotes carbon sequestration and oxygen production. “More whales mean more phytoplankton, which means more oxygen and more carbon capture,” she summarized. An increase of 1 percent in phytoplankton productivity due to whale activity would “capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees,” according to a 2019 report published in the International Monetary Fund magazine Finance & Development.
The “smart ocean” envisioned by engineers and in the process of being weaponized by the US military depends on sonar, which can be lethal for whales. A March 2022 report in Science found that sonar triggers “the same fear response” in many whale species as calls emitted by killer whales, “their most terrifying predators.” In attempts to escape the perceived threat, many whales stop feeding, flee for their lives, or strand themselves in groups on beaches.
The developing “Internet of Underwater Things” will dramatically expand the scope of sonar use. Until now, sonar has been used primarily for military purposes, but data networks using sonar and laser transmitters will “saturate the ocean with sonar waves” to enhance civilian and military communications, according to Paik-Mander. The Department of Defense’s Joint All Domain Command and Control system will interface with this sonar data network to connect aircraft, ships, and submarines in service of “satellite-controlled war,” Paik-Mander wrote. The Pentagon has already sought bids from companies including Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, and Google to manage the program’s data storage cloud.
The Independent Media Institute project Local Peace Economy produced Paik-Mander’s report, which was first published at BuzzFlash and subsequently republished by a number of independent outlets, including CounterPunch, Monthly Review, and Socialist Project. As early as 2017, Project Censored reported on the toll of US Navy training on marine wildlife. A number of news outlets have covered scientific reports on the role of whales in capturing carbon and mitigating climate change. But Paik-Mander’s report is unusual in establishing how catastrophic declines in whale populations due to ongoing naval exercises will be worsened by the development of underwater data networks for both military and civilian applications, to the ultimate detriment of the world’s climate.
Student Researcher: Jensen Giesick (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Amber Yang (San Francisco State University)