Unveiling the Depths: A Beginner’s Guide Underwater Acoustics

Underwater acoustics

Underwater acoustics or hydro acoustics is the study of the movement of sound in water and the interaction of the mechanical waves that constitute sound with the water, its contents and its boundaries.” 

Lets dive into a world of underwater acoustics, where sound waves travel through the vast depths of our oceans, revealing a realm of secrets hidden beneath the waves. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the fascinating field of underwater acoustics, exploring its principles, applications, and the impact it has on marine life, ocean exploration, and environmental monitoring.

Propagation of Sound

Underwater acoustic propagation is influenced by various factors, resulting in the transformation of sound waves through refraction, reflection, and dispersion. The direction of sound propagation is determined by sound speed gradients in the water. In the ocean, vertical speed gradients are typically more significant than horizontal ones. Additionally, as we go deeper into the sea, the increasing pressure causes the sound speed to rise, creating a reversal of the sound speed gradient in the thermocline. This phenomenon forms an efficient waveguide at a specific depth, where the sound speed is at its minimum.

The variation in sound speed profiles may lead to the formation of specific regions in the water. “Shadow Zones” are areas with low sound intensity, while “Caustics” are regions of high sound intensity. Scientists use ray tracing methods to locate these regions and understand their characteristics.

In the equatorial and temperate regions of the ocean, the surface temperature is high enough to reverse the pressure effect. As a result, a sound speed minimum occurs at a few hundred meters’ depth, creating a special channel known as the deep sound channel or SOFAR (sound fixing and ranging) channel. This channel allows underwater sound to be guided for thousands of kilometers without interacting with the sea surface or seabed.

Another interesting phenomenon in the deep sea is the formation of sound focusing areas called convergence zones. In these zones, sound waves are refracted downward from a near-surface source and then back up again. The distance from the source where this occurs depends on the positive and negative sound speed gradients.

In both deep and moderately shallow waters, a surface duct can occur when there is upward refraction, typically caused by cold surface temperatures. In a surface duct, sound is propagated by repeatedly bouncing off the water’s surface.

Understanding underwater acoustic propagation and its various phenomena is crucial for applications such as sonar systems, communication, and environmental monitoring in the vast and dynamic world of the ocean.


In underwater acoustics, we use a special device called a hydrophone, which works like an underwater microphone. The hydrophone measures pressure fluctuations caused by sound waves in the water. These pressure measurements are usually converted into two forms:

  • RMS acoustic pressure in pascals (or sound pressure level in dB re 1 μPa): This form gives us information about the average sound pressure level in the water.
  • Spectral density in pascals squared per hertz (dB re 1 μPa2/Hz): This form provides details about the mean square pressure per unit bandwidth, giving us a deeper understanding of the sound characteristics in the water.

It is important to note that the scale for acoustic pressure in water is different from that used for sound in the air. In air, the reference pressure is 20 μPa, whereas in water, it is 1 μPa. This means that for the same numerical value of sound pressure level (SPL), the intensity of a sound wave in the air is much higher than in water. To be exact, it’s about 1,440,000 times higher in air than in water for the same SPL value.

The 2017 standard ISO 18405 provides definitions and expressions used in the field of underwater acoustics, including how to calculate underwater sound pressure levels. This standard helps ensure consistency and accuracy in the measurements and calculations used in underwater acoustic studies.

Underwater Acoustics
Output of a computer model of underwater acoustic propagation in a simplified ocean environment.

The science of Underwater Acoustics

Underwater acoustics have a lot to offer, from concepts and theories to signal processing which we will discuss in detail.

Understanding Sound in Water

Sound behaves differently in water as compared to air due to their differences in density and compressibility. As sound waves travel through water, their speed and propagation patterns are impacted on by the water’s temperature, salinity, and pressure. The concepts of wavelength and frequency come into play, shaping the characteristics of underwater sound. Understanding these properties is essential for grasping the fundamentals of underwater acoustics and its applications.

Theories and Concepts

Snell’s Law, a fundamental principle of physics, administers how sound waves refract when they cross boundaries with varying sound speeds in the ocean. This phenomenon is crucial for sonar and underwater navigation systems. Additionally, we explore the reflection and absorption of sound in water, which influence how sound propagates and interacts with the marine environment. Multipath propagation, where sound waves follow multiple paths due to reflections, poses challenges in underwater acoustics and requires innovative solutions.

Acoustic Signal Processing

Acoustic signal processing is a vital aspect of underwater acoustics. It involves the transmission and reception of sound signals underwater, where noise interference is prevalent. Engineers and researchers employ various techniques to reduce background noise, enhance signal quality, and extract valuable information from underwater sound data. Sonar systems, which use sound waves for navigation and target detection, find extensive use in naval applications and underwater mapping.

Underwater Acoustics
A 38 kHz hydroacoustic tow fin used to conduct acoustic surveys by NOAA. Alaska, Southeast.

Applications of Underwater Acoustics


One of the prominent applications of underwater acoustics is sonar, which is the acoustic equivalent of radar. Sonar systems emit pulses of sound into the water, and the echoes from these pulses are processed to extract information about the ocean environment, detect submerged objects, and map the seabed. Passive sonar, on the other hand, involves listening to the sounds emitted by underwater objects to gain valuable information.

Underwater communication

Underwater communication is another crucial application of acoustical oceanography. The need for underwater acoustic telemetry arises in various scenarios, such as data harvesting for environmental monitoring, communication between manned and unmanned underwater vehicles, and transmission of diver speech. Acoustic communication faces significant challenges, particularly in horizontal, shallow-water channels. The available bandwidth is considerably reduced compared to radio telecommunications, and multipath propagation, Doppler shifts, and spreading are prevalent due to the low speed of sound in water. Advanced techniques, including hydrophone arrays and adaptive beamforming, are employed to improve the fidelity of underwater communication links.

Marine Life Communication

The world beneath the waves is teeming with life that communicates using sound. Many marine species, from whales to tiny shrimp, utilize sound for mating calls, group coordination, and predator warnings. Researchers study these bioacoustics communications to better understand marine behavior and ecology. However, human-made noise, such as ship traffic and industrial activities, poses a growing concern, impacting marine life and necessitating efforts to mitigate noise pollution.

Weather and Climate observation

Acoustical oceanography also contributes to weather and climate observation. Acoustic sensors can monitor sounds produced by wind and precipitation, allowing researchers to gain insights into weather patterns. Lightning strikes can also be detected using acoustic methods. Additionally, acoustic thermometry of ocean climate (ATOC) employs low-frequency sound to measure the global ocean temperature, providing valuable data for climate studies.

Seismic exploration

Seismic exploration is a fascinating method used to investigate the seabed by employing low-frequency sound waves (< 100 Hz). Even though the resolution may be relatively lower due to the longer wavelength of these sounds, low frequencies are preferred because high frequencies get significantly weakened as they travel through the seabed. To carry out seismic exploration, various sound sources are utilized, such as airguns, vibroseis, and even explosives. This technique allows us to gain valuable insights into the geological structures beneath the ocean floor.

Other Applications

Other applications include:

Tools and Technologies in Underwater Acoustics

Hydrophones and Transducers

Hydrophones are essential sensors used to detect underwater sound. Understanding their design and working principles is vital for acquiring accurate acoustic data. Transducers, such as piezoelectric and magneto strictive transducers, facilitate the generation and reception of acoustic signals in underwater environments. These technologies play a pivotal role in underwater research, navigation, and communication systems.

Underwater Acoustics

Underwater Acoustic Arrays

Acoustic arrays, comprising multiple hydrophones, work in tandem to achieve specific objectives such as beamforming and localization. These arrays offer directional sensitivity and improve signal processing performance. Techniques like delay-and-sum beamforming and adaptive beamforming are instrumental in applications that require precise target localization or signal enhancement.

Underwater Acoustic Modelling

Underwater acoustic modeling involves simulating acoustic propagation to predict sound behavior in various underwater scenarios. Numerical models, such as ray tracing and parabolic equation methods, are utilized to understand sound propagation paths, optimize sonar system designs, and assess the impact of environmental factors on acoustic signals. These models are valuable tools for researchers and engineers in designing effective underwater systems.

Environmental Considerations

Noise Pollution and Its Impact

Anthropogenic noise pollution is an increasingly concerning issue in the world’s oceans. Activities such as ship traffic, oil and gas exploration, and military operations contribute to underwater noise, disrupting marine life and ecosystems. Understanding the consequences of noise pollution is crucial for conservation efforts. Mitigation strategies and regulations are being developed to strike a balance between human activities and marine life protection.

Protecting Marine Life

The knowledge gained from underwater acoustics plays a vital role in marine conservation. By understanding marine life communication patterns, migration routes, and habitat preferences, researchers can develop effective conservation strategies. Balancing human activities with environmental protection is essential to safeguarding the delicate marine ecosystems and preserving biodiversity for future generations.


In conclusion, underwater acoustics is a captivating field that opens doors to a hidden world beneath the waves. Its principles and applications have wide-ranging implications, from understanding marine life communication to enabling precise ocean exploration and monitoring. With ongoing technological advancements, underwater acoustics continues to contribute significantly to marine research, conservation efforts, and sustainable use of our ocean resources. By embracing the potential of this field, we can forge a path toward preserving and protecting the vast depths of our oceans for generations to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *