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US Supreme Court Allows Sonar Use 374

Posted by samzenpus
from the dolphin-earplugs dept.
gollum123 writes "The US Supreme Court has removed restrictions on the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises near California. The ruling is a defeat for environmental groups who say the sonar can kill whales and other mammals. In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Navy needed to conduct realistic training exercises to respond to potential threats. The court did not deal with the merits of the claims put forward by the environmental groups. In reinstating the use of sonar, the top US court rejected a lower federal judge's injunction that had required the US Navy to take various precautions during submarine-hunting exercises. The Bush administration argued that there is little evidence of harm to marine life in more than 40 years of exercises off the California coast. It said that the judges should have deferred to the judgment of the Navy and Mr Bush. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said overall public interest was 'strongly in favor of the Navy.' 'The most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals,' Chief Justice Roberts wrote. 'In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained anti-submarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet.'"
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US Supreme Court Allows Sonar Use

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  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:18PM (#25742029)

    "Can you hear me now? Good!"

    • Re:Navy's response. (Score:4, Informative)

      by dex22 (239643) <plasticuser@gma i l . com> on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:21PM (#25742047) Homepage

      I have the irrational need to stab you. Repeatedly. In the groinal area. Did I mention repeatedly?

      • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:50PM (#25742235)

        I have the irrational need to stab you. Repeatedly. In the groinal area. Did I mention repeatedly?

        I disagree. Based on my post, the need is actually rational, not irrational.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by The Moof (859402)
        Ah, a fellow Verizon customer! You can tell who we are because we tend to repeat the same thing three or four time three or four time three or four times.
    • And the whale's response: "EH?"

      • by Kagura (843695) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:32PM (#25742549)
        Well, they're now allowed to use SONAR in all operational environments for training purposes, provided they use one ping only.

        ONE. Ping. Only.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mabhatter654 (561290)

        no, to the whales this is like a F22 breaking the sound barrier 1000 foot above your house. [http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/marine/sonar.asp] The sonar the Navy uses is extremely high powered and can cause hurt, just like a sonic boom of a jet smashing windows over land. If those were decibels in air 140 is illegal in public as it causes physical pain and permanent hearing loss, 235 db in air causes your ears to bleed... if they were doing this on the street (loud enough to be legally ban 100 miles away!) the

        • by Tubal-Cain (1289912) * on Thursday November 13, 2008 @01:41AM (#25743317) Journal
          You know what I would do if F22s got in the habit of breaking the sound barrier over my house? I would move. There is a couple thousand miles worth of coastline they can go to.
        • Re:Navy's response. (Score:5, Informative)

          by digitalchinky (650880) <dtchky@gmail.com> on Thursday November 13, 2008 @02:36AM (#25743627)

          Ripped from the NASA website:

          Sonic booms produced by aircraft flying supersonic at altitudes of less than 100 feet, creating between 20 and 144 pounds overpressure, have been experienced by humans without injury.

          Damage to eardrums can be expected when overpressures reach 720 pounds. Overpressures of 2160 pounds would have to be generated to produce lung damage.

          So, at 1000 feet, pretty much sweet FA is going to happen (where FA = Fuck All)

          A house of extremely dubious quality might result in a little damage when overpressure reaches somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds, so your average house, of normal quality, is probably not going to sustain any damage at all. The whole windows breaking thing is almost entirely a myth for the types of supersonic aircraft you would ever encounter from regular suburbia through to the arse end of nowhere in the backwoods.

          Submarines rarely make use of 'active' sonar, that defeats their purpose. (I was Navy so I have some professional background here) You might want to study sonar (and RADAR for interest) a bit more if you think 'more power' is the solution to better 'vision' under water. It ain't so good sir.

    • by RuBLed (995686) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:02PM (#25742331)
      The whales will not take this lightly. You will definitely need the best navy you could get when they declare war.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by tyrione (134248)

      "Can you hear me now? Good!"

      Whales: ``We fart in your general direction! Take that you human scumb!''

      Tsunami sized fart bubble cripples sub, news at Eleven!

  • What? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CWRUisTakingMyMoney (939585) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:19PM (#25742035)
    They didn't deal with the claims put forth by the environmentalists? Then what the hell DID they consider besides the Navy's side? (No, I didn't RTFO.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fluffeh (1273756)
      You need to consider more than one side of an argument if you are a supreme court judge?

      That sounds positively un-american if you ask me. I was pretty sure it's just about following what te president wants? Abortion, defense, environment, all seems to be "Commander In Chief! Sir! Yes Sir!"

      That's the view that I am getting from outside the US anyhow. No offense.
    • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

      by moderatorrater (1095745) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:36PM (#25742147)
      I believe they were saying that the damage from the navy being unable to use the sonar was so much greater than the damage that the environmentalists were claiming that it doesn't matter. One of the chief responsibilities the government has is to protect its people, and without training on the sonar the government can't do that.
      • by steelfood (895457)

        That's not for the Supreme Court to decide. Their job is to decide whether a law is constitutional.

        It is up to the legislature to decide how to balance freedom and national security by passing laws. Now, should the law be challenged on the basis of its constitutionality, then that's a different matter. If the environmentalists are challenging Bush's executive order privilege and how far Bush can go in the capacity of Command in Chief, that's yet a separate matter. But this doesn't seem to be the case. I don

        • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by pavon (30274) on Thursday November 13, 2008 @01:47AM (#25743351)

          Their job is to decide whether a law is constitutional
          Not quite. It's their job to interpret the entirety of the law, of which the constitution is the highest authority. If the law merely grants departments broad powers, in vague circumstances it does become the job of the Supreme Court to determine whether those circumstances apply. You can blame congress for passing crappy laws for that.
          I too am having a hard time finding out exactly what laws this case was decided based on (without reading the whole decision [supremecourtus.gov]). Here is some more info [inversecondemnation.com], admittedly in favor of the Navy.

          It sounds like the actual laws being questioned changed over the duration of the trial. First they were charging that Navy hadn't filed an environmental impact study (which they hadn't although they have studied the heck out of it), which the law "requires" but the law lists no punishment for not doing so. Furthermore, the Navy already had an exemption (from at least some laws), and got another one after the trial started dealing directly with this law. It sounds like after all was said and done this turned into something like the "EPA is required to regulate CO2" lawsuit, requiring the Court to decide based on the powers and responsibilities of that agency.

        • Re:What? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Lost Engineer (459920) on Thursday November 13, 2008 @01:57AM (#25743395)
          The article failed wrt details. There was no specific law. The environmentalists claimed the Navy failed to "prepare an environmental impact statement," supposedly violating the National Environmental Policy Act. It seems the court was saying you can't apply an law broadly directed at civilian activity to the naval exercises. The current Court prefers to make limited decisions. If there were a law specifically regulating the Navy's use of sonar I think they would uphold it, but, absent any law, this case is similar to arguing that the Army can't practice shooting because the bullets are full of lead.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        One of the chief responsibilities the government has is to protect its people

        I'm not disagreeing with you. I'm also not a religonut, but one thing I thing humans have sadly lost in the age of reason, with the loss of real old style religion instead of the nutjob variety infect large amounts of the US and Middle East today, is the sense of guardianship of nature. This idea that the governments responsibility to maintain a threat to other nations is higher than the human responsibility to look after the natur

  • Business as ussual (Score:3, Insightful)

    by St. Alfonzo (1393181) <ap@shee t f u n k.com> on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:23PM (#25742059)

    "The most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "In contrast, forcing the navy to deploy an inadequately trained anti-submarine force jeopardises the safety of the fleet."

    Caution be-damned in the name of the national defense.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:26PM (#25742077)

    Chief Justice John Roberts said overall public interest was 'strongly in favour of the navy.' 'The most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals,' Chief Justice Roberts wrote. 'In contrast, forcing the navy to deploy an inadequately trained anti-submarine force jeopardises the safety of the fleet.'"

    Fools. Have they not seen Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home?

  • by esocid (946821) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:27PM (#25742087) Journal
    The Navy has even admitted that active sonar is harmful and results in deaths of marine mammals, but like with the EPA, investigations with facts harmful to the administration's opinions are erased [washingtonpost.com].
    • by usul294 (1163169) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:02PM (#25742335)
      Thats why they put microphones in the water with a marine biologist listening constantly during testing and another on the bridge with binoculars looking for whales. Its why they observe a half hour before starting a sequence as standard procedure to make sure there are no marine mammals. They do what has to be done to ensure that there is nothing that can be harmed by the sonar in the vicinity.
      • how about test it on underwater divers... they signed up and it's safe for whales. We could try supreme court justices (with out air tanks though that might skew results)

        What kind of device potentially damages animals in a 50 mile radius? Really think about that, this would be equivalent to allowing sonic booms at 1000 feet altitude near cities... and to heck with the broken glass and ear drums. The army has nothing that invasive, the air force has nukes or days of carpet bombing and supersonic aircraft,

        • You posit we should damage people instead of animals? PETA will accept your money now.
        • by LynnwoodRooster (966895) on Thursday November 13, 2008 @02:23AM (#25743567) Journal

          how about test it on underwater divers... they signed up and it's safe for whales. We could try supreme court justices (with out air tanks though that might skew results)

          What kind of device potentially damages animals in a 50 mile radius? Really think about that, this would be equivalent to allowing sonic booms at 1000 feet altitude near cities... and to heck with the broken glass and ear drums. The army has nothing that invasive, the air force has nukes or days of carpet bombing and supersonic aircraft, but they pick the same spots to train where there is minimal wildlife to harm and reuse it over and over.

          I'm sure this is just a case of "boys with toys" making things bigger and louder because they can and pulling rank when asked to tone it down.

          Well, there IS no device - short of a nuclear bomb - that would create the 50 mile radius damage you quote. Directed sound in water falls off at a rate of 20logR, meaning that at a distance of 10 meters you are down 20 dB; at 100 meters you are down 40 dB. At a distance of 10,000 meters - about 6 miles - you are down 80 dB.

          An EXTREMELY powerful SONAR system might be capable of 250 dB ref 1 uPa within its beam angle. Meaning that at 10,000 meters and within the beam angle you would have a level of 170 dB. At that 50 mile radius? You would have 150 dB.

          How much pressure is that? Considering that 10m of water is approximately 1 atmosphere (~193 dB SPL, or ~219 dB ref 1 uPa), that would be equivalent to having a ~15cm wave go over you.

          Even closer, we see that at a range of 100 meters the level is down to 210 dB, meaning about the same as a 3m wave passing over your position underwater. How that damages an animal living IN the water in the open ocean I can't fathom.

          I submit it is NOT the pressure at all; in fact, the pressure generated from the fluke of baleen whale is near 230 dB (and the pressure at 10m from an ocean freighter's prop is about 230 dB as well). If there IS an impact on marine mammals it is probably from the frequency and the sudden "appearance" of an audible frequency. In other words, like walking up behind someone and going "boo".

          There is a tremendous amount of precedence for this hypothesis too; for example, blueback herring are highly sensitive to ~105 kHz signals and will scatter at the slightest noise in that range (which happens to be the third harmonic of the primary click range of bottlenose dolphins). You can blast those herring all day long with 230+ dB SPL at 200 kHz, or at 70 kHz without a problem, and get accurate biomass estimates; go near them with an ultra-low power (140 dB SPL) 105 kHz carrier and they scatter like leaves on the wind.

          And yes, I was (for nearly 7 years) a real live SONAR engineer working in the marine and fisheries research SONAR world, and am still a practicing acoustician (20 years experience).

  • by steelfood (895457) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @10:44PM (#25742199)

    I don't think the Navy as a government organization or the president have anything relevant to say in the matter. It is what the marine biologists and the science they do says. If their science says that such operations definitely harm marine mammals, then the Navy should be required to take certain precautions before doing their exercises. If there is no conclusive evidence, or if the evidence is circumstantial at best, then there's no reason to stop the Navy from doing their thing until such evidence is found.

    Now, if the evidence was indeed that strong, maybe PETA or some other animal rights group can and should bring suit against the Navy for harming the animals. If indeed the evidence is that strong, then this ruling is meaningless (the Supreme court didn't comment on the environmentalist's stance, which leaves the door wide open for more lawsuits). But until that time that the evidence really becomes that strong, I'm not sure national security should be jeopardized for the sake of a hunch or even an educated guess.

    • by Rich0 (548339) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:42PM (#25742627) Homepage

      Hey - I'm all for protecting the enviornment. However, it certainly isn't the ONLY consideration in a case like this. I don't think that anything could be worse for the enviornment than hundreds of nuclear ballistic missles, and yet I certainly sleep better knowing that they're present as a deterrant against a nuclear attack.

      Yes, we ought to care for the planet we live on, and that includes its ecosystems. It is in our own interest, and it also is generally the right thing to do. However, when the interests of humans collide with the interests of animals, you need to be realistic. A navy that is inadequate for the task of defending US interests encourages an attack upon those interests. Some have implied that submarines are unnecessary in the modern world - nothing could be further from the truth. However, a perfect army is one that never needs to fight a battle. When you have the perfect army then nobody messes with you in the first place. That doesn't mean that we should go around picking fights - but it is not in the interests of the US to fall behind either.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by syousef (465911)

      Now, if the evidence was indeed that strong, maybe PETA or some other animal rights group

      Maybe PETA can drop off the face of the Earth or fall into a black hole or something. Those people are loopy, irrational nut-jobs.

      Other sane animals rights groups are welcome to stay.

  • by sed quid in infernos (1167989) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:01PM (#25742325)

    Breyer wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. He agreed that the district court failed to follow the law when it imposed the two restrictions at issue on the Navy's sonar testing pending completion of the environmental impact statement. In this portion of his opinion, he agreed with the Navy. In the second part of his opinion, he disagreed that the proper response was to get rid of the two conditions.

    Stevens concurred in the first part of Breyer's decision and did not join the second part. In other words, he concurred in the judgment of the Court. In total, seven justices agreed with the Navy's position that the district court's order was not in accord with the law.

  • by tuxgeek (872962) on Thursday November 13, 2008 @12:01AM (#25742745)
    A very similar test to simulate what this high powered sonar would sound like to someone under water, for Bush and the crypt keepers on the supreme court.
    Stick their heads inside a 55 gallon drum and blast Metalica in the other end @ 400 db.
    • by rob1980 (941751) on Thursday November 13, 2008 @01:04AM (#25743107)
      That depends, are we talking new Metallica or old Metallica?
    • by dnwq (910646)
      Stick their heads inside a 55 gallon drum and blast Metalica in the other end @ 400 db.

      From CNN:

      But environmentalists say that the sonar can hurt whales much farther than 1,000 meters away and that the noise created by the sonar "was like having a jet engine in the Supreme Court multiplied 2,000 times, compensating for water," attorney Richard Kendall told the justices.

      Jet engine at 30m is 150 dB [wikipedia.org]. So you need to go beyond 400 dB ;)

  • A sailor chimes in.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 13, 2008 @12:53AM (#25743053)

    I routinely spend large amounts of time at sea for the US Navy. The ship I am on doesn't have active sonar, but:
      - We have a OS(W)or AB(W) topside at all times watching when we are underway watching for whales. The whale has the right of way.
      - We're not allowed to intentionally encroach within 1km to a whale. Dolphins and similar are fast moving/smart enough to think we might eat them. Most whales appear to think we are a really big whale and seem to like coming over to visit.
      - If our direction of travel is blocked by a whale, we must either steer to avoid or perform a rather unloved manuveur known as a 'crash stop'.
      - If we are operating with another ship we must abort operations if a whale enters the area.

    • "Dolphins and similar are fast moving/smart enough to think we might eat them"

      You wouldn't know it by the way they race with our ships. When I was on the Enterprise, the Dolphins (Porpoises perhaps?) would run right along side us, playing all day. They were fearless, swimming into our wake, under our keel, even running out ahead of us withe the carrier only a few yards behind. I can't speak to whale experiences, but as far as Dolphins went, the Big E had no "policy"... hell, as fast as we could go, they'd g

  • Minefield? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tubal-Cain (1289912) * on Thursday November 13, 2008 @01:59AM (#25743409) Journal
    Is there any way they can discourage the whales from coming around? Like maybe ring off the testing area for a couple hundred miles with buoys that make enough noise to be irritating to them?
  • Why not just use laser pulses? Can we not attenuate a beam to sweep/scan the ocean instead of detectable sound, or is that just not feasible??

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by bakes (87194)

      The only practical way when using a "laser" is to attach it to the head of another marine animal. Obviously they can't be sonar-sensitive mammals, so would have to be fish. They'd also have to be large enough to be able to carry these "lasers".

      Now, what large fish could we use to carry these fricking things... ?

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