Navy Used Flawed Science to Justify New Atlantic Sonar Range

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.


A U.S. Navy proposal to build an Atlantic sonar training range off the coast of North Carolina has used flawed science to play down sonar's often-fatal danger to whales and ignore the facility's potential impact on local marine ecosystems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Navy's environmental impact assessment for the proposed new sonar test range underestimated the impact of the sonar site on whales by an enormous margin, claiming that no harm would come to whales from noise "100 times as high as the level recommended by [NOAA]."¹

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has long sought to protect whales from Navy sonar, a report by whale biologists at the International Whaling Commission² said that the evidence linking sonar to a series of whale strandings in recent years is "very convincing and appears overwhelming."³

The Washington Post reported that the Navy "neglected to address the likelihood that its mid-frequency sonar would kill some whales and that the highly endangered right whale makes its annual migrations near the proposed site off North Carolina and could be threatened." NOAA's formal comment on the Navy's environmental impact statement, sent in January 2006, said that the Navy predicted only low-level "harassment" of whales by the sonar, despite recent fatal and near-fatal mass strandings in Hawaii and elsewhere that many scientists think were caused by Navy sonar. "NOAA believes the Navy should seriously reconsider the potential for mortality of [whales] due to strandings related to activities in the proposed sonar testing range," the comment said in part.4

The NOAA letter, sent by Miles M. Croom of NOAA's Habitat Conservation Division, also expressed concern that the naval facility's construction and operation would threaten local fish populations and marine ecosystems. "We are concerned that adverse impacts to living marine resources may be expected to occur that are not fully analyzed in the EIS,"5 NOAA wrote. The Navy's proposed facility would be a 500-square-mile sonar range, with a large array of sonar buoys and sound detection devices connected by buried cables, forty miles off the coast of North Carolina.

NOAA's public challenge reflects a long history in which the Navy has denied scientific evidence of environmental damage caused by sonar. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that mass strandings and, often, deaths of whales have been linked to military sonar use on at least twelve occasions in the Bahamas, Medeira, Greece, the US Virgin Islands, the Canary Islands, the U.S. northwest coast, and North Carolina.6 Time and again, however, the Navy has chosen to ignore or minimize the role of its sonar systems in these whale massacres.


1. Marc Kaufman, “Navy Plans for Sonar Facility Challenged,” Washington Post, 18 February 2006, accessed 5 October 2006.

2. International Whaling Commission, “2004 Report of the Scientific Committee,” 2004, Section 12.2.5.1, Annex K, reprinted in Journal of Cetacean Research & Management, Vol. 7, May 2005, accessed December 8, 2006.

3. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Protecting Whales from Dangerous Sonar,”November 9, 2005, accessed 5 October 2005.

4. Kaufman.

5. Letter from NOAA Assistant Regional Administrator Miles M. Croom to Keith Jenkins, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, 31 January 2006, accessed 5 October 2006.

6. NRDC.

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