Sounds Of The Sea
Sara Blumberg (NASA)–Experience the swirls off the coast of Río de la Plata to the upwellings in the Indian Ocean put to musical notes of imagery from our own Earth-observing satellites. For the last 18 months, a scientist and his brother at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have been developing an online program that merges ocean color data with musical notes. The goal is to give onlookers an immersive experience into the ocean imagery Goddard scientists study everyday in an effort to understand the complexities of a large, changing ecosystem. “We wanted to tell a story to appreciate the connectivity of our Earth’s ocean through this aural sonic experience,” said co-creator and Goddard scientist Ryan Vandermeulen. “We use music because it’s engaging and dynamic and connects us across a wide variety of backgrounds.”
Join us on a tour of sounds of our ocean and explore how we created the harmonies.
First Stop: Río de la Plata
Vandermeulen’s “oceanographic symphonic experience” started with an ocean color image of Río de la Plata. He was struck by its complexity: the beautiful sediment plumes spilling off the shore, the “crazy swirls and whirls” he followed in the bay, and the large sediment plume that seemed to spiral everywhere. Vandermeulen had a thought – what would this image sound like? “I started by extracting transactive data from satellite images. I looked at the patterns of the red, green, blue channels,” he said. “Clearly, they weren’t traveling in the same direction. There was something there.” In order to use the data, he rescaled the individual color channels and assigned musical notes to express changes in the image. “The data itself, you’re listening to it as it exists. The variations are creating a natural palette for the ear,” he said.
Second Stop: Bering Sea First Stop: Río de la Plata
After pulling the data from the ocean color imagery, Vandermeulen was looking for ways to merge the data with sound.
Enter Jon Vandemeulen, Vandermeulen’s brother and programmer. “So I have experience doing digital music production because I fancied myself a rockstar,” he joked. “ And so I decided to help and told him it wasn’t optional, this was a great idea.” After bugging his brother for data, Jon created a programmatic interface that translated the data into musical notes. He then rebuilt the tool so the translated data could be imported into a digital audio workstation. For Jon that was GarageBand. Their website https://www.spektune.com/ allows anyone to import data to create music for free. The program created the music for an ocean color image of the Bering Sea, exploring a satellite that captured an eddy or a circular movement of water. The brothers focused on the data coming from the image’s red, green and blue channels. “It’s a pretty straightforward audio experience. It’s three simple instruments plucking along and you can hear when one goes up, one goes down. You can really hear the harmonies,” Jon said.
Third Stop: Coral Sea
The study of ocean color helps scientists gain a better understanding of phytoplankton and their impact on the Earth system. Goddard’s Ocean Ecology Laboratory is dedicated to this. “The whole root of everything we’re seeing with our eyes is based on the sensitivity of these red, green and blue photoreceptors on photons being reflected from everything around us,” Vandermeulen said. “When we’re looking at an object, light enters our eyes and stimulates our cone cells. Our brain then interprets the signals from these cells so that we see the perceived color of an object.” At NASA, some Earth-observing satellites have detectors that act like human cone cells, sensitive to specific wavelengths of light. Through this technology, they are able to detect ocean color at a resolution above what humans are capable of seeing. “We started to toss around the idea of capturing and isolating the individual wavelength components,” Vandermeulen said. “Instead of interpreting this into a picture, what if we could translate these variations into this sonic experience – something that could stimulate our brains in a different way.” With the Coral Sea, the brothers created a melody that focused on a year’s worth of data from the Aqua-MODIS satellite, extracted from a series of 32-day average global image of chlorophyll a-, a specific form of chlorophyll used in photosynthesis. The 48 images collected display all four seasons in Australia.
Fourth Stop: Indian Ocean, Northwest Australia
The Indian ocean of northwestern Australia also caught the eye of both brothers. “It looks like swirls of coffee creamer,” Jon said. The data consisted of 31 days of satellite imagery, combining multiple wavelengths of light being reflected from the ocean’s surface. “It was something special.” Jon wanted to try something different, so he created a way to offset each day of data. What resulted was a waltz-inspired melody.
The creation of their audio program is just the beginning of the brothers’ project. They hope to create more music-inspired imagery as they move forward. At NASA, sonifications aren’t just of the ocean, they are also created for our solar system. Check out NASA’s Soundcloud page for a list of more melodies of space and beyond.
By Sara Blumberg
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
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