What is that mysterious 'pinging sound' coming from the Arctic sea floor?

An unidentified noise has confounded hunters in Canada's remote north who say the pinging sound is scaring away game.

Sam Soja/CP/AP/File
Ice off the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada's far north.

Canada’s Army has carried out an investigation into the source of a mysterious noise coming from the sea floor in the remote Arctic, after hunters from a nearby Inuit community raised concerns about scarce numbers of game in a normally rich hunting ground. 

Paul Quassa, an assemblyman in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, blames the noise – described variously as a pinging, hum or buzz – for driving away the animals in the Fury and Hecla Strait.

"That's one of the major hunting areas in the summer and winter because it's a polynya," or a patch of open water ringed by ice where sea mammals tend to gather, he told CBC. "This time around, this summer, there were hardly any. And this became a suspicious thing." 

Theories on the noise’s source are legion: sonar surveys conducted by mining companies mapping the sea floor, environmentalist activists hoping to foil seal hunters, even echolocating whales. But the longer the mystery remains a mystery, the riper the grounds may be for "magical thinking" awash in superstition and conspiracy theories that spring up around unexplainable noises. Confounding the curiosity further is that not everyone can hear these mystery sounds.

One such noise is "the Hum," an auditory phenomenon that has been heard from Bristol, England, to Taos, N.M., since the 1950s. In an April report The New Republic found attempted to explore the gray area between scientific inquiry and "mass delusion" when it comes to identifying the source of audible phenomena. The article was inconclusive.

As in the case of other unexplained auditory phenomenon, part of what makes the Arctic pinging uncanny is that not everyone can hear it. Another local legislator, George Qulaut, told CBC that he couldn’t, although he added he’s nearly deaf, and noticed on a recent visit to the area that the normally abundant wildlife was gone. Boaters passing through the area have said they heard it, as well as a number of callers to a local radio show. 

But the Canadian Department of National Defence are definitely skeptics. 

"The Canadian armed forces are aware of allegations of unusual sounds emanating from the seabed in the Fury and Hecla Strait in Nunavut. The air crew performed various multi-sensor searches in the area, including an acoustic search for 1.5 hours, without detecting any acoustic anomalies. The crew did not detect any surface or subsurface contacts," said department spokeswoman Ashley Lemire in a statement, according to The Guardian.

"The crew did observe two pods of whales and six walruses in the area of interest.... At this time the Department of National Defence does not intend to do any further investigations." 

Still, past instances of such phenomena might caution against dismissing those who complain of such noises, as Marc Lallanilla wrote in 2013

Being dismissed as crackpots or whiners only exacerbates the distress for these complainants, most of whom have perfectly normal hearing. Sufferers complain of headaches, nausea, dizziness, nosebleeds and sleep disturbances. At least one suicide in the United Kingdom has been blamed on the Hum, the BBC reports.... Most researchers investigating the Hum express some confidence that the phenomenon is real, and not the result of mass hysteria or hearers' hypochondria (or extraterrestrials beaming signals to Earth from their spaceships).

The Nunavut community has no leads on the cause, Mr. Qulaut told CBC, though he speculated that the environmentalist group Greenpeace, which has clashed with hunters from the community in the past, could be to blame. Greenpeace rejects the accusation.

"Not only would we not do anything to harm marine life, but we very much respect the right of Inuit to hunt and would definitely not want to impact that in any way," the group’s spokeswoman, Farrah Khan, told the network. 

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