Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Imaging the ocean with ambient noise


FOR many years, the principal means of probing the ocean using sound has been through the use of 'active' or 'passive' techniques. With an active system, an object is illuminated by a pulse of sound and its presence inferred from the echo it produces, whereas the passive approach involves simply listening for the sound that the object itself emits. Here we report a new method of using sound in the ocean, which is neither passive nor active. It relies on the naturally occurring, incoherent ambient noise field in the ocean— which can be thought of as 'acoustic daylight'—as the sole source of acoustic illumination. By focusing the sound scattered by an object immersed in the noise field, it should be possible to produce a visual image of the object on a television monitor. We have tested this concept by conducting a simple experiment in the ocean, with a parabolic reflector acting as an acoustic lens, and our results confirm that objects illuminated only by ambient noise can indeed be 'seen' at frequencies between 5 and 50 kHz

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Urick, R. J. Principles of Underwater Sound (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Kerman, B. Sea Surface Sound (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1988).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Melville, W. K., Loewen, M. R., Felizardo, F. C., Jessup, A. T. & Buckingham, M. J. Nature 336, 54–56 (1988).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Mellen, R. H. J. acoust. Soc. Am. 24, 478–480 (1952).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Buckingham, M. J. & Jones, S. A. S. J. acoust. Soc. Am. 81, 938–946 (1987).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Glegg, S. A. L. & Buckingham, M. J. Florida Atlantic Univ. Rep. (July 1990).

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Buckingham, M., Berknout, B. & Glegg, S. Imaging the ocean with ambient noise. Nature 356, 327–329 (1992).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing