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Whalesong and Earthquakes – Michelle Weirathmueller at Real Scientists – Real Scientists

Whalesong and Earthquakes – Michelle Weirathmueller at Real Scientists

“When Seattle scientists set out to monitor earthquakes off the Northwest coast, they expected their underwater seismometers to occasionally pick up the booming voice of the fin whale — the second-largest creature on Earth. But what they wound up with was such a cacophony that they had trouble zeroing in on the actual tremors.” – Seattle Times 


From the depths of the Universe to the depths of our oceans.  Our curator this week, Michelle Weirathmueller (Twitter: @michellejw), is a PhD student at the University of Washington, Seattle, who studies the sounds of whales.  No really. We’ll let Michelle explain:

“Basically, I’m a PhD student in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington.  My background is in underwater acoustics and signal processing – I love studying underwater sound!  I was lucky enough to land a spot in William Wilcock’s lab, looking at baleen whale calls in data collected by ocean bottom seismometers (OBSs).  OBSs are deployed all over the world to record things like rumbling undersea earthquakes or seismic signals. They just happen to also be sensitive to the low, booming calls of nearby fin and blue whales.  I spend a lot of time digging through this data, trying to find ways to squeeze as much information out of the “squiggles” as I can.  I ask questions like, how many are out there?  Are they moving?  How much variation is there between calls? My focus for the time being is on fin whales, but one day (maybe soon?) I hope to also dig into the blue whale calls as well.”

The breeding and migration habits of fin whales are not well known, which is odd for the second largest creature on earth. Since they seem to inhabit deep water offshore, they’ve been hard to track. So using this method is one way of tracking their movements.  But it’s also a way of distinguishing between earth tremors and whale song – separating out the many, many curves they found in the OBSs.  All this can be done using a ready made tracking system, already there on the sea floor. And it can only get better as countries employ more and more OBSs for their seismic monitoring.  To do this, the Wilcock lab has designed its own software to distinguish between tremors and whale song, which means that like many scientists, Michelle has to be multitalented:  build her own unique programming for her work.


As well as getting one of the coolest jobs on earth tracking whales, Michelle runs a number of outreach efforts.  She has a blog, The WaveForm Diary, and draws cartoons to explain scientific concepts and the research of the many scientists she interviews.  We can’t wait for her to share all of her amazing work with us this week. Please welcome Michelle!

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