Stories about strange sounds are always suspicious. This recent news about a very northern mystery noise is no exception. In this piece from CBC news (Canada) – Mysterious ‘ping’ sound from sea floor baffles Igloolik – I found a number of assumptions, guesses, and no good data to support the allegations that there is a strange noise causing animals to leave the area. As of this writing, I see many news orgs repeating the headlines without actually considering the few facts.
Instead of doing what those hype-type “news” sites do and enhance the mystery, let’s break this one down a bit more carefully to see if there is a mystery at all. First, as I always insist, read the story for yourself. It opens in a new browser window. I’ll wait…
OK, so you have the gist of the story. Some people in a Nunuvut village (territory in the Canadian Arctic) say they hear a ping (or hum or beep) that they believe is not normal. This is concerning to them and they think it has resulted in wildlife disturbance. Various “theories” have sprung up that suggest something nefarious is at work.
The sounds are said to be a ping, beep or hum heard in the Fury and Hecla Strait northwest of the village. The inconsistent descriptions are a clue that perhaps people are not all describing the same thing but several things to which they are attributing a general name and certain cause. Also suspicious is that this sound hasn’t been recorded. There are instruments readily available that can record underwater sounds. It’s not mentioned anywhere that this has been done. So we have no solid evidence that any sound is actually occurring at all, just anecdotes.
Boaters aboard a private yacht passing through the area also say they heard the mysterious sound, and described it during an appearance on a community radio show upon their arrival in Igloolik. A number of people called in to say they’d also heard it.
Unconfirmed anecdotes. Unfortunately, we have to be aware that people will perceive what they are suggested to perceive. This could be a major cause for the entire strange sounds phenomena that began in 2011. People started listening and attributing every noise to a mysterious cause. Clearly, some of these sounds have very mundane causes. But it’s often difficult to figure out just what those causes are – the observer does not have enough information.
The Canadian military has conducted aerial surveillance. They found no anomalies, but they did find some walruses and whales.
Another interesting question left unanswered for this situation is, if these sounds have been occurring since the summer, why is it making the news now? We don’t know. It may have come to the attention of the CBC through political channels. The person advocating that the noise is a problem and its effects detrimental is Paul Quassa, a member of the legislative assembly who presented the case last month to the Nunavut legislature. He says that it’s scaring the animals away.
“That’s one of the major hunting areas in the summer and winter because it’s a polynya,” an area of open water surrounded by ice that’s abundant with sea mammals, he said.
“And this time around, this summer, there were hardly any. And this became a suspicious thing.”
But, it appears that the lack of animals is not a new thing. I found this from 2012 when a local remarked that the mining activity, which has really ramped up in this area, seemed to be affecting the wildlife population.
“For the past two years,” he adds, “I’ve been noticing less ring seal and less bearded seal in that area. Baffinland has been testing sonar to sound the depth of the water, and sea mammals are hearing it big time. I use sealskins a lot for ropes and food, and I’ve been noticing it’s been harder to hunt seals.”
The mining company, Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation has developed the Mary River mine over 100km northeast of the town. According to the CBC article, some people think that the company is conducting sonar surveys or other activity in the area. The company says no, they aren’t. Side scan sonar was used several years ago during the development of a port for the Mary River mine to ascertain the depths for ship safety. Ships are now running through full of iron ore.
We must be cognizant that the news report is not giving us all the necessary information for a fair determination of the claims. They never do. Due to the remoteness of the location, additional information may be difficult to obtain. But we also see many other factors at play here. The locals have a list of possible “theories” as to what is going on. These are more like imaginative speculation and guesses. They aren’t theories since they have no support so far and can’t be tested. Options proposed were…
Internal correspondence between sources in the Department of National Defence, obtained by CBC News, suggest submarines were not immediately ruled out, but were also not considered a likely cause.
Igloolik is about 70 kilometres north of an active military site called Hall Beach. The military says they are investigating the complaint about the sounds.
“We’ve heard in the past of groups like Greenpeace putting in some kinds of sonars in the seabed to get the sea mammals out of the way so Inuit won’t be able to hunt them,” Quassa said.
But no boats have been seen. Greenpeace denies doing anything of the sort.
No unusual mining activity can be connected with the noise and the mining corporation says they don’t have sonar equipment in the water.
Quassa says no territorial permits have been issued for work — such as construction, blasting or hydrography — in the area that could explain the noise.
So, from what we are given, it’s not clear that there even IS a mystery sound. We do see that increased industrial activity is going on here and has been for several years. There is potential military activity nearby and a suspicion among locals that something is wrong. Could it be that the industrial activity or a natural cause is to blame for the decreased wildlife? Are the locals erroneously attributing the cause to a particular but misguided cause?
The National Post’s latest also notes that this area is known for tall tales about strange objects and possible foreign submarines in the sea. So watch for that to be elaborated upon to enhance the mystery.
There has to be an actual mystery before we seek to solve it. As presented, this story of the mystery sounds of Igloolik contains too many open questions to even begin to formulate an answer. Mystery mongering is unwarranted, and speculation, though human nature, just causes more trouble and could lead the community away from finding the real answer to their concerns. However, I’d bet the locals know more about this story than the CBC revealed. What they know might ruin the “mystery” angle to the story. We won’t hear about that.