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High-frequency sounds cannot be heard by the human ear but they can be used by some animals to see.

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Credit: U.S. Navy
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Hatteras_sinking.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The only ship to sink in the Gulf of Mexico during the U.S. Civil War was a Union ship named the USS Hatteras, shown on the right in this picture. It was sunk by a Confederate ship named the CSS Alabama, shown on the left.

The Back Story

  • The wreckage of the USS Hatteras was first discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that the first sonar images of the ship were made. Storms had washed away sand that was covering the wreckage, allowing sonar access to it.
  • Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usoceangov/4167340394/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Ships can scan the ocean floor using advanced sonar scanners to look for sunken objects [Figure2]

  • Sonar images of the USS Hatteras were made by divers. Deep in the murky Gulf waters, they used advanced, 3-D sonar equipment never before used underwater. You can learn how sonar is used to investigate underwater objects by watching this short video:


Explore More

At the links below, learn more about the USS Hatteras and sonar. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. How does sonar work to detect underwater objects?
  2. Sound waves travel from a sonar device to an underwater object and then back to the sonar device again. Assume you know the amount of time it takes the sound waves to make the round trip. What property of sound waves is needed to calculate the distance to the underwater object? How would the distance to the object be calculated?
  3. Sand and silt in the water prevent light from passing through it. This limits the distance that divers can see underwater. How do sand and silt in the water affect sonar?
  4. The wreck of the USS Hatteras is being investigated by underwater archeologists. The military also uses sonar under the water. What is one military use of sonar?
  5. What frequency of sound waves is used by military sonar? How far can the sound waves travel through the water?
  6. Name two animals that use sound waves the same way that we use sonar.

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: U.S. Navy; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Hatteras_sinking.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usoceangov/4167340394/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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