Ice cave soundscapes

photo by Maciej Bernaś, KSAF AGH

As part of a larger research project, a group of researchers from the Department of Mechanics and Vibroacoustics of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics carried out a comprehensive acoustic study of  Spitsbergen ice caves.

March 2018 saw the research staff from the Department of Mechanics and Vibroacoustics organise their third expedition. The research work conducted during this year’s and the two previous studies (undertaken in August 2016 and February 2017 respectively) by: professor Jerzy Wiciak, professor Antoni Kalukiewicz, professor Janusz Piechowicz, DSc Dorota Czopek and DSc Paweł Małecki is an important starting point for further acoustic studies of the polar environment, in particular with regard to observations of acoustic climate change.

AGH UST’s researchers provided a review of the project in the publication written by professor Jerzy Wiciak, professor Janusz Piechowicz, DSc Dorota Czopek and DSc Paweł Małecki: "Acoustic environment of Spitsbergen: selected problems", an excerpt from which is presented below.

The research conducted during the three expeditions aimed to develop and implement in the Arctic environment the research methodology covering: acoustic environment analysis and its sound context, identification of anthropogenic and psychoacoustic properties of the acoustic environment and determination of the social meaning of recorded soundscapes. The applied method of soundscape analysis has been studied since the 1970s, yet it was not until the last 15 years that this research domain and its applications in the assessment and management of the acoustic environment gained increasing popularity. The importance of research based on the soundscape method has been appreciated by – especially European - governmental organisations and national institutions financing scientific research programmes.

Long-term monitoring of the acoustic environment is a promising approach to the understanding of the dynamics of natural systems and areas which are either protected or modified by human activity. Long-term sound monitoring systems are an important tool used to develop effective guidelines for long-term protection of natural areas.

Silence is the antonym of noise. Silence is difficult to define and has a number of dimensions – it can be associated with the presence of calm, delicate, pleasant sounds as well as with the experience and direct contact with nature. Exploration and measurements of silent soundscapes constitute an important study enabling identification of nature’s precious soundscapes. Silence is currently one of the most valuable and at the same time most vulnerable elements of the natural environment. The increasing impact of civilisation on Svalbard has led to a situation when it is considered a necessity to work out how to reduce noise created by man and human activity. The research into how climate changes, land transformation, patterns of biological diversity, schedule of social events and human activity create and affect the ever-evolving soundscape is of significant interest.

The research methods developed by scientists have enabled preservation of important and unique sounds, which together constitute a soundscape archive to be used by future generations. The studies conducted have allowed the researchers to determine the baseline value for any subsequent studies of the impact of the human activity and climate change on Spitsbergen’s soundscape and its – broadly understood - natural environment. The sound recordings can be also used for artistic purposes. For example, the sounds of seagulls registered in the village of Pyramiden were used by the composer Sebastian Ładyżyński to create the soundtrack for ‘Learning to fly’ – a theatrical performance produced by Białystok-based Puppet Theatre, based on ‘Seagull’, a novel written by Richard Bach. It should be noted that the Pyramiden bird colony was terminated in 2017, which attest to the value and significance of the sound recording sessions the researchers conducted.

The third expedition allowed the researchers not only to supplement the existing database of ambisonic recordings and measurement data (e.g. winter acoustic map of Barentsburg) but also contributed a whole new branch to the project: a comprehensive study of ice cave acoustics. The idea of the measurements can be traced back to the second expedition, during which the researchers came across, somewhat accidentally, ice caves which are characterised by a remarkable variety of forms and shapes, and thus a wealth of acoustic phenomena. The third expedition was preceded by an intensive search for methods and equipment which could enable the team to carry out the acoustic measurements in harsh Arctic conditions, with limited mobility capabilities (snowmobiles, lack of other motor transportation) as well as access to power supply. It is thanks to this work that this year’s expedition succeeded in conducting acoustic measurements in four caves on three glaciers: Larsbreen, Longyearbreen and Tellbreen.

There are plans to continue acoustic research on Spitsbergen in the summer season so that the existing database can be supplemented with the sound map of Barentsburg in the summer season as well as the acoustic monitoring of bird colonies in the area of the Fugjefella plateau.