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New paper pinpoints “opportunity sites” for acoustic habitat protection near proposed oil sands shipping route

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary of Rob Williams, Christine Erbe, Erin Ashe, Christopher Clark. Quiet(er) marine protected areas. Marine Pollution Bulletin (2015), j.marpolbul.2015.09.012  View or download paper online

Over the past decade or so, concern about ocean noise has expanded from its initial focus injuries and deaths caused by periodic loud events, such as sonar or seismic surveys.  Many researchers are now working to understand the ways that widespread, chronic shipping noise affects marine creatures’ behavior, foraging success, and stress levels.  Long-term deployment of hydrophones, sound models that extrapolate from shipping data, and slow-but-steady improvements in our knowledge of the hearing ranges and population densities of particular species have all combined to open exciting new avenues for research that can inform policy decisions in the years to come.

Using these new measurement and modeling techniques, researchers can quantify the “acoustic quality” of marine habitats.  This starts with charting the extent of shipping noise, while also considering the different auditory ranges of various species of interest.  Next, researchers map where animals tends to congregate in various seasons, to identify areas that are especially important to each species.

Of particular importance is identifying areas that have, so far, remained relatively free of shipping noise.  If at all possible, we’ll want to avoid extending the human noise footprint into these increasingly rare acoustic havens.  A research team that’s been active on Canada’s southwest coast over the past few years has been at the forefront of these techniques, and has just published a new paper that introduces the concept of “opportunity sites”—areas used by each species that are still relatively quiet, and so have high long-term conservation value.

“We tend to focus on problems in conservation biology. This was a fun study to work on, because we looked for opportunities to protect species by working with existing patterns in noise and animal distribution, and found that British Colombia offers many important habitat for whales that are still quiet,” said Dr. Rob Williams, lead author of the study. “If we think of quiet, wild oceans as a natural resource, we are lucky that Canada is blessed with globally rare pockets of acoustic wilderness. It makes sense to talk about protecting acoustic sanctuaries before we lose them.”

Below left: population density of harbor porpoise in coastal waters of British Columbia; below center: ship noise, weighted to harbor porpoise hearing; below right: opportunity sites to preserve high-quality acoustic habitat for harbor porpoises. Red indicates “highest”, blue “lowest” on all maps.


These new opportunity maps make it painfully obvious how little of each species’ habitat is free of excessive shipping noise. In the example above, harbor porpoises can only find high quality acoustic habitat in a couple of small areas.  Without some concerted effort to protect these areas, they will continue to shrink.

While recognizing that many areas of critical habitat are already too loud (in particular, the entire Seattle/Vancouver region), the authors acknowledge that reducing existing noise is difficult—limiting shipping, or reducing the noise made by boats, has social and economic costs that can be hard to accept.  By contrast, the areas they’ve identified merely need to be maintained in close to their current acoustic condition, which will be far easier to accomplish.  As the authors note:

In our professional opinion, if two places are equally important to whales, with one being noisy and the other being quiet, it would be helpful to identify those areas and present that information to decision-makers. The noisy area may require mitigation, whereas the quiet area may make a more attractive or convenient candidate for critical habitat protection, either because it represents higher quality habitat to the animals or because it imposes lower economic costs to society to mitigate anthropogenic threats.

This may not mean excluding new activities from these regions, because, again in the authors’ words, “a particular marine environment could be dominated by anthropogenic underwater noise that is perceived as being loud to one species, but quiet to another.” Indeed, the opportunity maps differ for each species (though that area on the eastern side of the large island of Haida Gwaii recurs in most).  So, we will need to pay close attention to what species are present, how well they’ll hear the new noise sources, and the ways they may respond.

Generally, large ship noise is far more audible for baleen whales (humpback, fin, etc.) than for smaller toothed whales (dolphins, orca), which vocalize and hear at higher frequencies. That’s not to say that the smaller whales don’t hear big ships; they often do, and in many cases, they respond at a lower sound level than larger whales, so even if the ships are “fainter” to their ears, their reactions may be similar.

humpback opportunityWhile this paper steers clear of any sort of advocacy tone, and does no more than present the new “opportunity sites” analysis and mapping technique, the waters being studied are at the center of a contentious public policy debate.  The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands region of Alberta would dramatically increase tanker traffic to the existing deep-water port at Kitimat (yellow arrow, left).  Such an increase through Caamano Sound (red arrow, left) would threaten the humpback whale opportunity site (map, left) identified just south of the Sound.  Several years ago, co-author Rob Williams told reporters, “Caamano Sound may be one of the last chances we have on this coastline to protect an acoustically quiet sanctuary for whales. … We don’t exactly know why this area is so rich, but there are some long, narrow channels that serve as bottlenecks for food, making it easier for whales to feed.” A consortium of environmental organizations is currently challenging the Canadian government’s approval of the pipeline, claiming that the approval did not take into account the humpback recovery plan, identifying Hecate Strait (the larger area between the mainland and the large offshore island) as a critical humpback feeding ground.  The pipeline is being challenged on several fronts (including strong opposition from B.C. First Nations communities); considering acoustic habitat protection, limiting new ship traffic during the times of year when the current opportunity sites are being heavily used would seem to be the least we can do.



Navy agrees to exclusion zones for sonar, explosives training

News, Sonar No Comments »

mapsWEBAfter being slammed by a federal judge in March, the US Navy has agreed to keep sonar training and explosives testing and training out of several biologically important areas off the California and Hawaii coasts.  This week, settlement talks with NRDC, Earthjustice, and other plaintiffs resulted in a final order, which will remain in effect through 2018, when the current round of permits expire.  This is a substantial victory for the environmental groups, the first legal affirmation of a long-standing argument that the Navy can and should keep its loudest activities out of areas where whales and other sea creatures congregate.  It’s especially notable after losing a similar case targeting the Northwest Training Range Complex last year, in which the judge ruled that the Navy had suitably considered the question of whether exclusion zones would reduce harm to animals.  This time, a different federal judge was much more amenable to the fundamental idea that the Navy can achieve its training mission without totally unfettered access to all corners of the seas.

While mid-frequency active sonar has received the most attention, recent EIS’s and permits for Navy training and testing activities have made it clear that explosives trigger the vast majority of the potential injuries and deaths, as well as a huge number of the behavioral reactions that are also of concern to environmental advocates.  This agreement totally bans in-water explosive testing and training from an area between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands off southern California and from nearly all Hawaiian near-shore areas (the exception being the waters between Hawaii and Maui).  Mid-frequency active sonar “major training exercises” will be excluded from the two of the four zones around Hawaii island and a zone west of Molokai; while both major exercises and small-group or single-boat sonar are banned in a nearshore area off San Diego during the five months each year when Blue whales are present.  Meanwhile, sonar activity will continue as part of large training exercises several times per year in other nearshore Hawaiian waters; waters farther offshore and between the specified exclusion zones will also remain available for sonar and explosives training and testing.

“This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, in a statement. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”

It’s not clear how often the exclusion zones have been actively used for these now-banned exercises in the past; the Naval Training Ranges include vast expanses of ocean around Hawaii and off the California coast. We do know that four dolphins died in 2011 after an explosive exercise in the area between the two Californian islands, and presumably routine smaller-unit sonar training has ranged through some of the near-shore waters now off-limits.  The exclusion zones range from 15-30 miles wide around Hawaiian shorelines; the San Diego exclusion zone extends about 15 miles offshore and along 30 miles of coast, while the offshore area between the two Californian islands is nearly 60 miles long and around 15 miles wide.  Within these areas, injuries and deaths should now be generally avoided (though the Navy contends that such incidents are already extremely rare; see this post for a deep dive into the question of the estimated “take” numbers).  However, the large numbers of behavioral reactions, or Level B takes, are unlikely to be reduced much at all by these changes, since they occur at much greater distances (70% of Level B takes occur at 25-50 miles).  Indeed, even the exclusion zones themselves may well experience sound levels high enough to trigger behavioral changes when exercises take place in nearby waters; however, the most disruptive behavioral reactions, such as interruptions in feeding or mating, or disruptions of mother-calf interactions, should be reduced significantly within the exclusion zones.  And, this settlement could set the stage for more exclusion zones in the next round of 5-year impact assessments and permits covering training ranges in waters along most parts of the US coastline.

Seabed mining inches forward

Human impacts, Ocean 1 Comment »

The new frontier for mining is the bottom of the ocean.  When done in relatively shallow waters (500m or less), it’s known as seabed mining (SBM); in areas where the seafloor is deeper, it’s called deep sea mining (DSM).  In the past five years, the International Seabed Authority, a UN agency that oversees commercial activity in international waters, has issued 27 exploration licenses, each good for 15 years.  So far, no mines are active in deep waters, but that’s likely to change soon:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.10.38 PM

If you’d like to get up to speed on what’s going on in the field, this resource page from the Ocean Foundation is a great place to start. It includes links to major agency, industry, and NGO players and to several reports of interest. Noise is considered a significant impact from SBM and DSM, though seafloor habitat disturbance (both physical disruption and the addition of light to areas normally very dark) and plumes of sediment in water being returned from the processing ship above are the primary impacts.

Mining at sea often has a much smaller social and ecological footprint than terrestrial mining; among other factors, many seabed mineral reserves have a higher concentration of the minerals of interest than those on land, especially after centuries of mining the best ores.  Still, one common target for ocean mining is deep sea vents, which are biologically rich thanks to their concentration of minerals and temperature differentials.  We’re still in the early years of grappling with how to assess the significance of the impacts on seafloor habitats.  Moving forward, we need to be considering what proportion of each regional habitat type will be allowed to be disrupted, and, as ever, we should be particularly cautious about introducing industrial activity into areas that are still relatively free of other human activity (this is especially important in regards to noise).  See previous AEI coverage of this issue here.

Wind farm plan abandoned after UK policy changes

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Recent policy changes by the UK government have spurred the developers of the Nocton Fen wind farm to pull the plug on their project.  The new government policy accelerated a planned end to wind farm subsidies, setting an end date of April 2016, and added a requirement that all wind projects receive approval by nearby residents via a local or neighborhood plan.


In response to these changes, Swedish wind developer Vattenfall held a six-week local consultation, and this week announced it would not proceed with the project:

Graham Davey, Vattenfall’s Project Manager for the Nocton Fen Wind Energy Project, said: “It’s obviously disappointing to stop development of Nocton Fen as it would have delivered significant benefit locally and generated affordable, clean and renewable energy for tens of thousands of homes every year.

“It was clear that proposed changes to onshore wind planning in England introduced increased risk in the process. Stopping the scheme now is a sensible decision.

North Kesteven District Council Leader, Councillor Marion Brighton OBE, spoke for the locals, saying, “We welcome Vattenfall’s decision and appreciate them making this announcement so soon after the close of their recent statutory pre-application engagement. Their proposals would have been unreasonably intrusive in terms of the landscape character and amenity of local communities and I am sure that this decision not to proceed will be of significant comfort in bringing clarity on Vattenfall’s position in light of the Government’s recent policy announcements.”

This particular wind farm would have been built on the estate of vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson, and had raised local ire from the start due to its proximity to a local landmark, the Lincoln Cathedral; the turbines would be twice its height. “Lincoln Cathedral defines the landscape for miles in each direction,” said Melvin Grosvenor, who lives in the village of Baumber, 10 miles west of the proposed site. “This [wind farm] would spoil the long-distance view that has existed for a thousand years and change the character of the whole area.”

There are currently 250 wind farm proposals, totaling 2500 turbines, that may be similarly affected by the policy changes; time will tell whether the UK’s on-shore wind industry grinds to a halt, or adapts and finds a way forward.  It’s unclear from recent reports whether the loss of subsidies is deal-killer for wind developers, or whether some projects may be viable without subsidies, if they are far enough from neighbors to gain local support.

Listening to the sounds of a phantom oil field

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science Comments Off on Listening to the sounds of a phantom oil field

080615TB_NoiseWEBSomewhere out in the vast expanse of the Snake River plain this summer, the sounds of a natural gas compressor floats across the sage-strewn landscape.  Look around though, and you won’t see any wellpads or boxy compressor stations.  If your eyes are sharp, you may spy the source of the intrusive sound: a large solar-powered speaker.

It’s part of phase two of a study looking into the effects of human noises on wildlife.  Phase one was the “Phantom Road,” a half-mile string of speakers set up in an Idaho forest, which found that traffic noise caused notable changes in the makeup of the nearby bird population.  About half of the species in the area showed some avoidance of the sounds, with two species nearly absent when the speakers were on (one species preferred the noisy periods).  This study was summarized in AEI’s 2014 poster that summarized research on “The Effects of Chronic Moderate Noise on Animal Behavior and Distribution.”

By using speakers, rather than studying actual roads or oil development sites, researchers are able to separate out the effect of noise from the effects of the physical disruptions of the habitat (the loss of plant cover at the site itself, and access roads to the facilities).

The oil field study, which includes a six sites with speakers and six control sites with no added noise, is looking at effects of the noise on birds, bats, and insects.  And, they’ve brought birders out to their sites to see how oil development may affect their ability to hear birds and enjoy the landscape.  Some of the birders were surprised at how much even distant compressor noise interfered.  “The whole thing has been ear-opening, shall we say,” said Jim Lyons of Boise. “To be part of this is very stimulating, very interesting. I am going to think about it from now on.”

UK Sounds of our Shores spurs public enthusiasm

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Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 9.08.54 AMA summer-long project of the British Library and the National Trust, Sounds of Our Shores, has attracted hundreds of submissions from every part of the country. A click on that link will take you to their online collection of sounds, presented in an easy-to-browse format.  This recent article from Yorkshire captures some of the enthusiasm that the project has spurred among both the public and the organizers.

Musician Martyn Ware will weave some of the recordings into a new composition later this year.  He urged people to “go to the coast, close your eyes and reawaken the most underrated sense of all – hearing – and pay attention to the beauty of your sensory environment and you will be repaid a thousandfold.”

For National Trust ranger for the Yorkshire Coast, Zoe Frank, the region’s coastline had varied and exciting sounds to offer.  She said: “There are so many, but my favourites would include Ravenscar, when, as you walk along the clifftops, you can hear the seals on the beach below. It can be quite an eerie sound, almost like barking.” The “deafening” sounds of kittiwakes during nesting season at Saltburn, and the trickling waterfall at Hayburn Wyke, which runs into the sea just up the coast from Scarborough, also make up some of the “wonderful” natural sounds of the Yorkshire coastline, Ms Frank said.

It’s not all tranquil nature along the coast, though.  Harbors alive with fishing boats, street sounds in villages, and the region’s railway heritage all capture the ears of contributors:

Danielle Ramsey, marketing manager of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway said the “lullaby” of the steam trains as they make their way from the market town of Pickering, across the Moors and the national park through to Whitby, was “one of those sounds you won’t find anywhere else.”

“The mixture of the sound of the engines with the waves, and the train tooting as it leaves Whitby for the Moors, is very special,” she said. “There’s a sense of excitement when you hear a steam train, as you go past every bridge there will be people waiting, with their camera phones ready, after hearing it approaching.”

National Park air tours restricted at sunrise and sunset for first time

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It’s not much, but it’s a start.  The troubled FAA/NPS collaborative planning process has completed an actual final plan to manage air tours at a national park.  But don’t get too excited: it’s not a full-on Air Tour Management Plan, as was the goal for all national parks with sightseeing flights when the two agencies were charged with the task fifteen years ago.  Taking advantage of new rules encouraging voluntary agreements with air tour providers, Biscayne National Park in Florida is on the verge of finalizing such agreements with two flight providers.

biscayneThe good news is that these agreements limit flights from 8am to 6pm, which leaves sunrise free from flights year-round, while sunsets only occur a bit before 6pm for a couple months in the heart of winter.  Similar provisions for flight-free times extending an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise at the Grand Canyon were derailed at the last minute by Senators McCain and Reid in a rare show of bipartisan meddling.  The Grand Canyon remains the only National Park with a formal air tour plan, thanks in part to the fact that the FAA was not part of that process, which predated the start of the FAA/NPS efforts (the FAA and NPS have different approaches to the EIS process, which they’ve been unable to resolve).  So it may be an encouraging sign that the first agreements to come out of the joint planning do manage to keep the magic hours on each end of the day free for quieter recreation.

Of course, Biscayne is not your typical National Park.  Within sight of Miami, there is plenty of boat traffic and most of the action takes place near the seashore, with all of its natural and human soundscapes, as well as on and under the waters of Biscayne Bay.  Plus, the number of air tours is small (200 annual flights, most from November to May), and there is probably little demand for sunrise and sunset flights.  Still, perhaps this first small step will set a precedent for plans at other parks.

Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys Comments Off on Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

Shell Oil is gearing up to do the first new exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska.  The project has been in the pipeline for years, and has faced numerous legal challenges (mostly regarding the danger of a spill and climate imperatives) and logistical snafus (the most extreme being a drill ship that ran aground).  Just last month, a consortium of environmental groups filed a suit challenging the most recent permits; there has yet to be a ruling.  The expansion of oil and gas development from Alaska’s north slope to offshore waters will create a marked increase in human noise in an ocean region that is currently relatively free of our intrusions.  Exploration leases have been sold in both the Chukchi Sea (left below) and Beaufort Sea (right below).


Earlier this year, the Obama administration officially put some areas in these waters off limits, but a close inspection of the maps presented then reveal that virtually none of these areas were planned for development when the above map was created in 2008; the exclusion zones appear to match the near-shore areas excluded above (one exception: a small portion of the Chukchi zone is now off-limits).

Noise concerns extend far beyond the drilling itself, or even the seismic surveys that take place prior to drilling and during the life of the project.  The drill rigs come along with a support fleet of 30 other boats and several aircraft, promising a steady din in the area.  “In the Arctic, I can’t emphasize how novel an activity this is,” says NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani. “It really is a whole new level of disturbance for an area already experiencing rapid change and stress.” Concerns extend from whales to walruses, seals, and polar bears.

A wide array of ongoing research is underway, aiming to characterize the current soundscape in arctic waters. Read the rest of this entry »

Seabed mining: is 35 miles too close to whale nursery?

Ocean, Ocean energy Comments Off on Seabed mining: is 35 miles too close to whale nursery?

As regular readers may know, I really dislike the expansion of mining into the sea. Not content to be filling the seas with the sounds of our ships and seismic survey airguns traversing the surface, we seem intent on extending our industrial footprint and sound-making onto the seafloor.  The oil and gas industry is already there, with its “subsea processing” facilities, as covered extensively by our friends at Ocean Conservation Research.  And now, here come the miners:

dredge boatWhat’s not to hate about this? And indeed, I was quickly riled up by a proposal to mine phosphate near a Gray whale birthing lagoon in Baja California, Mexico.  An article on The Ecologist’s website stressed the mine’s threat to San Ignacio Lagoon, the southernmost of two lagoons where over 2500 whales arrive each winter to give birth and nurse their young.  The mining will take place in five areas within a 350 square zone, 12-21 miles from shore, and roughly 35-70 miles from the mouth of San Ignacio (inlet in pink on map below; mining area in grey).

area mapSpurred by this article, I dug into the project’s environmental assessment to get a sense of how extensive the noise impact of this new mining operation would be.  And while there may well be serious issues with returning sediment to the ocean after separation on boats above, direct effects on local animal populations living in the mining zone, and other environmental impacts from the unproven mining techniques to be employed, I have to say that I was surprised at how modest the noise will be. Read the rest of this entry »

FAA spurns opportunity for quiet area protection in traffic pattern updates

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Vehicles, Wildlands 1 Comment »

FAA metroplexesWEBA new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effort to modernize air traffic flow around major cities is ignoring the chance to do slight re-routing that would minimize air traffic over dwindling areas of natural quiet.  The FAA is in the midst of a multi-year process to update the traffic patterns in and out of airports in 17 metropolitan areas.  Each “metroplex” is served by multiple airports, and the FAA’s goal is to increase efficiency and on-time performance, using a number of strategies, including more precise coordination of flights into shared flight paths.  This includes some effort to consolidate flight corridors, which has the good news/bad news effect of reducing air traffic noise over many areas, while increasing it in some of the new corridors.  Unfortunately, some of the new concentrations of activity are over areas that were previously sanctuaries of natural quiet.

The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Program got involved early in this process, in the hopes that the new traffic schemes could reduce air traffic over relatively quiet park and wilderness lands.  Over the past twenty years, the NPS has pioneered efforts to highlight and protect natural soundscapes; their monitoring and management techniques are gradually being adopted by public lands managers in other state and federal agencies.  While deep wilderness settings are often the focus of these efforts (e.g. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone), many NPS holdings closer to urban areas provide easily accessible experiences of natural quiet.

A recent in-depth article in the East Bay Express looks at the way this has unfolded in the FAA’s planning of the Northern California Metroplex around the San Francisco bay area.  The FAA has largely spurned the input from NPS, which hoped to protect or improve natural quiet opportunities in the Point Reyes National Seashore and in Yosemite National Park.  Despite formal NPS requests, Read the rest of this entry »

2011 stranding blamed on Royal Navy bomb explosions

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bomb site and kyleIn July 2011, 70 pilot whales were spotted in the shallow Kyle of Durness on the north coast of Scotland; as the tide went out, at least 39 were stranded.  Quick efforts by locals and live-stranding groups managed to refloat 20 animals, but 19 perished.  This month, a report commissioned by the UK’s governing agency, DEFRA, concluded that a series of bomb-disposal explosions were the most likely cause of the stranding.  It’s a good reminder that much of the potential impact on wildlife from Navy exercises is from traditional ordinance, rather than sonar.

While pilot whales are relatively common around Scotland, and there have been numerous strandings through the years, it’s unusual that they would venture into such a shallow, tidal bay.  It seems likely that the pod was in the area relatively near shore (either following food, or transiting between feeding locations) when several bombs were exploded on the day before the stranding (yellow pointer on image).  Navigational error (perhaps caused by hearing impairment) left them in the mouth of the bay (red pointer), 3-5 miles away, rather than offshore; the strandings had just begun when the final bomb was exploded the next day, which likely drove more animals into the shallows.

The report suggests that some whales may well have been close enough to suffer temporary or permanent hearing damage.  In the most damning finding, it appears clear that monitoring for nearby animals was cursory at best, done only from small inflatable boats: Read the rest of this entry »

Recount reverses 3rd wind farm vote in divided Maine town

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ME Timberwinds~Dixfield-2mi simulationUpdate, 6/29/15: The drama continues in Dixfield, where a recount has reversed the recent approval of a more restrictive wind farm ordinance.  The initial 5-vote margin turned into a 31-vote victory for the other side, with the final tally being 390-359, against the revisions.  Town Manager Carlo Puiia and the chairman of the board of selectmen were both present for the recount; Puiia says, “There were several of us in the room, and a number of people were there as witnesses. I think we pinpointed where the problem was, and that this is an accurate count.” He added, “The Board of Selectmen will discuss this at their next meeting on July 13. My prediction is that they’ll continue to work off of what the Planning Board has already done. It has a lot of good stuff in it.”  If so, then we can look forward to a fourth round of voting sometime soon; the faction in town that favors letting the wind project proceed has narrowly prevailed in each of the three votes held so far.  The bad blood and distrust in town was highlighted in the days following the recount, when some locals became convinced that the wind company was immediately trucking turbine parts up to the site; in fact, the local project has yet to begin its lengthy permitting process, and the turbines were bound for a previously-approved project in nearby Carthage.

Original post:
35dB night limit wins approval in divided Maine town

The town of Dixfield, Maine has approved a new wind ordinance that includes setbacks of 4000 feet from neighboring residences, 2000 feet from project boundaries, and a night time noise limit of 35dB.  The latter provision is said to be a deal-killer by Patriot Renewables, which planned to build a 20MW project on a ridge in town (picture shows simulation from 2 miles away).

For the third time in less than three years, local voters were asked to approve changes in its wind ordinance; each time, the vote was a nail-biter. Read the rest of this entry »

Active sonars continue to proliferate; India is powering up next

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Atlas-Elektronik-to-Supply-Sonar-for-Royal-Thai-Navys-New-Frigate.This week the Indian Navy confirmed its purchase of six low-frequency Active Towed Array Sonar (ACTAS) units, for use in tracking Chinese subs in the Indian Ocean.  With a stated detection range of 60km (37mi), it appears that this system puts out far less sound than low frequency systems used by the US (SURTASS LFAS) or the British (Sonar 2087), both of which are effective to at least 100 nautical miles, and can be detected at much greater distances.  It is remarkably hard to find information about the proliferation of these systems; the German-made ACTAS system is presumably being used elsewhere as well, while the UK Sonar 2087 is deployed on several UK Navy ships, and was recently also purchased by Chilean Navy.  So far, the US Navy has plans to outfit 4 ships with its SURTASS LFA system, and it is used regularly in the western Pacific, monitoring Chinese and North Korean activity. While environmental groups continue to challenge US deployment of LFAS and to add biological safeguards to training programs using mid-frequency active sonar (see AEI coverage of both), these and similar systems continue to spread into waters around the world.

Pipeline expansion to add 700 tanker transits in already-saturated southern BC waters

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Bioacousticians and marine advocates have been closely following plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia, which would greatly increase ship traffic in some coastal waterways that are relatively quiet so far; see previous AEInews coverage.  But another pipeline project, farther along in the permitting process, could push the already stressed waters of southern BC and northern Washington to the acoustic breaking point.  The Trans Mountain Pipeline, built in 1953 and expanded several times since then, is gearing up to nearly triple its capacity and make adaptations that will allow heavy tar sands oil to be moved to the Pacific coast for shipment to Asia.

379-kitimatmapWEBThe expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline would have 75% of the capacity of the proposed Keystone KL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, so it has triggered active resistance on similar climate change grounds as Keystone.  At the same time, ocean advocates are stressing the cumulative impact of the additional 720 tanker transits that would occur in already-busy waters that include critical habitats for killer whales, sea lions, and other species.  At this point, most of the additional capacity is targeted for Burnaby, BC (increasing monthly tanker arrivals from 5 to 34), though the pipeline also serves terminals in northern Washington state. (Some of the current capacity is refined and used in North America, but virtually all of the increased capacity will be shipped overseas; thus the tanker traffic will increase 7-fold despite the smaller capacity increase.)

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just released a review of the Trans Mountain proposal, which is currently being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB), and finds it lacking, saying it contains “insufficient information” to adequately assess the threats posed both by underwater noise and ship strikes. “The assessment considers noise from a single project-related ship, without taking into account the additive and cumulative effects of existing noise,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada concludes.

Marine advocates second that concern.  Margot Venton, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice, stresses that “The critical habitat is basically as noisy as it can be. We need to make it quieter.” Misty MacDuffee, a fisheries ecologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said anything that impedes the ability of whales to feed is a serious concern. “It’s just the growing din,” she said. “They are trying to [communicate and hunt] in an increasingly loud environment.” (Thanks to the Globe and Mail for their coverage and all these quotes.)

The NEB review is slated to be concluded by July; the federal government will then take six months to consider the NEB’s recommendation and make a final decision.  If approved, construction could begin in 2016 and be completed the following year.

Highway noise can block key fish mating calls

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AEI lay summary of:
Daniel E. Holt, Carol E. Johnston. Traffic noise masks acoustic signals of freshwater stream fish. Biological Conservation 187 (2015) 27-33 (ScienceDirect link)
Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 1.35.59 PMWith each passing year, we learn more about the ways that animals use sound—and so also how human noise interferes with their lives.  A new paper looks at how traffic noise from bridges may impinge on the mating calls of freshwater fish; this is the first study to use some of the new metrics of “communication space” in these important and widespread habitats. The species studied was the blacktail shiner, a member of the largest family of fishes (including carps and minnows), with the study sites being small streams passing under bridges on I-85 in Alabama (image shows one of six sites).

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 2.06.36 PMMale shiners make two sounds during mating: loud “knocks” used to challenge other males who are intruding, and softer “growls” used to court females.  Streams are naturally loud environments, with noise from wind, rain, and turbulence; shiners take advantage of a relatively quiet “window” in the broadband noise, between 172 and 366Hz (like many other animals that vocalize in frequency ranges less cluttered by local sounds or other species).  While the traffic noise is not much louder than the natural stream sounds at frequencies above 700Hz, unfortunately for the shiners, in this key quiet window it is significantly louder than the stream noise—and also the seductive growls of male shiners.  The graph shows natural ambient noise (green), road noise (red), and growls (black dotted line).  The two peaks in the growl acoustic spectrum are particularly important; the lower peak in particular is dramatically drowned out by traffic noise.

blacktail_shiner2The bottom line for the fish is that their knocks, which can be heard above the natural sounds of the creek out to about a half meter, are just slightly masked—only within three meters of the bridge are they lost in road noise (3m is the mean; maximum modeled range of effect is 22m).  So these calls of challenge and defense among males, which may also show females who’s the most fit, can serve their purpose unless the action is taking place right under a bridge.  The subtler sounds of the growls, however, are much more impacted.  These sounds, being quieter, are meant to be heard at very close range (generally just a few inches from the nest sites); yet the lower peak in the growl sound spectrum will be effectively inaudible in areas out to 640m (almost a half mile) from a bridge, and the second peak will be similarly masked out to 40m (both distances are means; maximum ranges are, respectively, 12km/7 miles and 1600m/1 mile). Adding insult to injury, peak spawning time is morning, before water temperatures rise, which may coincide with peak morning traffic.  Of course, only a small portion of most spawning streams is near heavily travelled interstates or secondary roads; those near more sporadically-travelled local roads are likely to be less affected.  Still, if the effect extends a half mile or more, large stretches of many streams could have some degradation of their natural and necessary acoustic habitat.

The authors’ conclusion neatly sums up what all this means going forward:

The noisy environment in which C. venusta spawn has a convenient window in the noise spectrum, which is exploited by C. venusta for the purpose of communication with females during reproductive behaviors. Our results show that this quiet window is disrupted by road traffic noise. This discovery should be followed up by studies investigating the behavioral and stress responses of C. venusta, as well as other more imperiled fishes, to noise from bridge crossings. Future efforts should also be made to characterize noise from different bridge styles, daily temporal patterns of noise, and attenuation at longer distances.



Acoustic monitoring increases in US northeast waters

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Several independent research projects that are listening to fish and whales in waters along the coast from New Jersey to Maine have joined together as the NorthEast Passive Acoustic sensing Network (NEPAN).  This map shows the location of the various research programs that will be taking place through 2017:


The NEPAN website offers a good overview of the aims of each of these projects.  Of particular interest is a real-time buoy deployed near a Coast Guard gunnery range off Rhode Island, which will help the Coast Guard to avoid initiating live-explosive exercises when any of the few remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are in the area.  The array of long-term recorders along the edge of the continental shelf will also provide some key new information on seasonal presence of many whale species, as well as helping clarify how far offshore they tend to be during migration (again, especially crucial information for the right whales).

Scientists object to new Atlantic oil/gas exploration plans

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A letter from 75 leading bio-acoustics researchers urges President Obama to derail current plans to open much of the US eastern seaboard to oil and gas exploration and development.  Last year, the Department of Interior opened the door to new seismic surveys from Delaware to Georgia, which will clarify which areas of the continental shelf are most promising as drilling sites; these could begin as soon as this year or next.  So far, nine applications have been filed for surveys, all 50 miles or more offshore.  In January of this year, Interior announced plans to issue drilling leases beginning in 2017, with the initial five-year leasing period targeting roughly the same region; in conjunction with opening this area, development was banned in some Alaskan waters (small areas off the north slope and a larger area in SW Alaska).

map All this has spurred much public outcry, and in March an impressive array of ocean scientists from dozens of universities and research organizations around the world took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to President Obama expressing deep concern about the acoustic impacts of these plans. “The magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain,” say these researchers (see the full letter).

New dynamic maps from NOAA’s new Cetacean & Sound Mapping project indicate that these right whales use the southeast coast intensively in January and February, and are present along much of the coast in March and April moving north, and November and December heading south.  Only during the months of June-October are these whales mostly in northern waters away from the region currently being targeted.  Of course, other marine species are present year-round.

The Department of Interior suggests that since all activity will be more than 50 miles offshore, it should not interfere with commercial or recreational fishing, or near-shore areas of critical habitat; however, airgun sounds are often audible at much greater distances than that.  Energy companies also stress that heavy seismic survey activity in the Gulf of Mexico has co-existed for decades with both commercial and recreational fishing activity.

While initial push-back has largely been focused on the seismic surveys, which use pulses of loud sound to image deep below the seafloor (here’s a good explainer), the longer-term acoustic footprint of oil development is likely to also be significant. Ocean Conservation Research has been focusing on this for several years, tracking the new generation of seafloor processing facilities that are making deep-water development possible:

Much of the technology that makes deepwater drilling possible hinges on creating pre-refineries on the sea floor. These include seafloor separators, reinjection pumps, multi-phase pumps and other equipment all operating under extreme pressures and often very high (and noisy) differential pressures. Additionally these deepwater operations are typically performed from dynamically stabilized drill ships and “semi-submersible” platforms that are always churning away.

Listening array documenting rare natural quiet on BC coast, in face of development proposals

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PacificWild, a British Columbian environmental organization, has deployed a network of 6 hydrophones in waters along the northern coast of that province.  This region of offshore islands and dramatic forested fjords is relatively wild, and quiet, especially as compared to the shipping-intensive region in southern BC around Vancouver Island and nearby Puget Sound in Washington State. But development proposals (including tar sands and other oil and gas ports) may mean up to 3000 supertankers per year will pass through these northern waters, bringing an expansion of the acoustic smog that already blankets most of the world’s oceans.

farshot      closeshot

Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild stresses that “Most of the species that are acoustically sensitive rely on a quiet ocean in order to communicate, in order to forage, in order to survive here,” and notes that the hydrophone array will gather crucial baseline acoustic data that can help inform management decisions to be made in the next few years.

Live streams of the hydrophones are available, though at most times, there’s not all that much going on; a collection of highlights, as well as streams, is available on this page. To learn more about the project, see PacificWild’s website, or take a look at this brief video (see it here if it doesn’t load for you).

Navy, NMFS slammed by judge over training permits

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The Navy and NMFS suffered a stunning legal defeat over the latest 5-year EIS and permits governing training exercises in Hawaii, California, and waters in between.  In marked contrast to other recent court rulings, which found fault with some procedural issues but largely backed the Navy and NMFS’s collaborative planning results (see detailed AEI summaries of 2014 rulings on the Pacific Northwest training range and global low-frequency sonar permits), US District Court Judge Susan Moki Olway vehemently rejected several key aspects of the permitting for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing (“HSTT”) Study Area. (Note: while sonar has been the focus of most public concern, these trainings also involve live ammunition, explosions, etc., that are responsible for most of the anticipated behavioral disruptions and nearly all the injuries and deaths.)


The primary target of the legal challenges was the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which issues the permits (Letters of Authorization) and the Biological Opinion that underly the permit conditions and take numbers. The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not directly challenged (a Supreme Court ruling has left the Navy with broad discretion and little room for legal challenges), but the EIS is accepted as sufficient by NMFS, and Judge Olway made a point of chastising NMFS for being too quick to simply adopt much of the Navy’s reasoning about both the impact on animal populations and the practicality (or lack thereof) of keeping training activities out of some areas.

The ruling seems to call for a fairly substantial revision of the EIS, the Biological Opinion, and the take numbers authorized by the permits; still, it may be likely that these documents can indeed be revised to fix the shortcomings identified by the Court, without substantially reducing the training activities being planned.  Also, an appeal to a higher court is possible, or likely, given the broad implications of the ruling.

Nonetheless, this ruling is the most fundamental challenge to the current Navy and NMFS planning process since the original lawsuits that helped trigger the Navy to begin producing EISs and NMFS to issue permits.  Among the key issues that were successfully challenged: Read the rest of this entry »

New boat-triggered foghorn system spurs longing for soothing ambience along the fog-shrouded coastline

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In seaside communities up and down the Maine coast, a new foghorn-triggering system being rolled out by the Coast Guard is spurring passionate pushback.  The hardware supporting the old system—which turned on foghorns whenever humidity rose above a threshold and kept the gentle blasts going for hours at a time—is being replaced by a new system that is triggered by radio pulses from boats, so that the foghorns are activated only for short periods as boats are in transit nearby.  The Coast Guard says that the old moisture-based hardware is wearing out, and the manufacturer no longer makes new parts, necessitating the change-over.

portland head light in fogWEBJane Dillon of York, who gathered 350 signatures in favor of a return to the old system, said opinions about the old foghorn often divided people in York, with longer-established residents firmly standing by their love of the horn’s tone, which she called “that haunting sound that brings me back to the days when sailors were out there hoping for safety.” In Kennebunkport, Tom Bradbury agreed: “There’s a sense that someone is on guard, watching over those who are on the water. We find it a very pleasing, comforting sound.”  At Kennebunkport’s Cape Porpoise, Goat Island Light was one of the first ones to be outfitted with the new system, after the old hardware failed six times in six years; but after an outcry, the Coast Guard temporarily replaced the old unit, and plans to do more public outreach to prepare citizens for the change.  Similarly, roll-outs in other communities along the coast will be accompanied by increased engagement with communities ahead of time.  Meanwhile, concerns are being raised about the safety of small boats without the VHS radios necessary to trigger the new system; but with the old system’s parts going out of circulation, options are limited.

Unless an alternative source for the moisture-triggered hardware magically appears, the call of the foghorn seems likely to become a signal that boats are passing by, rather than being a soothing voice of the coastline when shrouded in fog.

Forest Service to limit snowmobiles to designated trails, areas

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snowmobiles white mountainsTen years after the US Forest Service started requiring off-highway vehicles to stick to designated routes, a similar policy has now been adopted for snowmobiles.  When the OHV policy was developed, much of the concern was on streamside erosion and damage to meadows, so similar limitations were not considered as important for vehicles traveling over snow.  However, from the start, cross-country skiers and snowshoers pushed for limits to snowmobiles, as well, stressing the impact of motor noise, which can travel far across mountain basins in otherwise very quiet landscapes.  In recent decades, as snowmobiles have become more powerful, remote high-country snowfields popular with skiers have been attracting more snowmobiles as well.

Now, the Forest Service will require each National Forest to designate specific areas for snowmobile use.  Unlike OHVs, which are generally limited to trails and roads (with modest excursions off roads allowed for hunters), the snowmobile rule allows extensive areas to be opened to snowmobiles.  While generally very pleased with the new policy, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (a leading quiet recreation advocacy group) expressed concerns that this areas can be nearly as large as a ranger district.

Over 40% of National Forests that get consistent snow cover already manage snowmobiles as required under the new rule, so nothing will change there.  In other forests, user groups have collaborated to achieve similar ends:

“About four years ago, we worked with snowmobile groups to reach an understanding about riding areas near Stevens Peak,” said John Latta of Spokane, co-founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance. “The people that sit down with us have gray hair and like to ride the trails. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s needs.”

Still, some riders have broken these informal agreements, so the new rules will help alleviate such problems.  Snowmobile groups tend to support the measures as well; Paul Turcke, a lawyer who works with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said “We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users.  We hope this is a step in the right direction.”

Noise issues featured on annual “top stories” lists

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Every December, local papers around the country routinely highlight the top stories of the year gone by.  Based solely on AEI’s routine Google News keyword results, it appears that noise-related issues were among the major topics in several areas.

Wind farm noise issues made the lists in at least two places.  In Van Wert County, Ohio, it was the #2 story of the year.  The wind industry has been complaining loudly about a tweak to state rules that now measures the state’s modest 1300-foot setback limit from  property lines, rather than homes.  While wind developers claim this precludes most development, the option of establishing good-neighbor agreements with those living close to proposed turbines remains open.  In Huron County, Wisconsin, the #7 story was “Wind energy continues to divide community,” as the county and several townships consider revisions in their wind ordinances.

And, not surprisingly, continuing controversy over the diluted Grand Canyon National Park overflight rules was a top story in northern Arizona.  The big development this year was the FAA making 1700 additional flight permits available to companies using “quiet” aircraft. AEInews has covered the overflight issue in some detail for many years.

No-go zone proposal splits orca advocates

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A proposal to exclude whale-watching boats from nearshore waters off San Juan Island in Puget Sound has been revived by a local orca protection group, Orca Relief Citizens Alliance.  A similar plan was proposed by NOAA in 2009-11,  but was abandoned after push-back from whale-watching groups, with a speed limit introduced instead.  In recent years, the population of resident orcas has fallen to a 30-year low, and is down to 77 after 4 deaths during 2014, including the first new calf to be born in two years.

“This is only an immediate solution to a dire situation,” said Orca Relief Executive Director Bruce Stedman. “When salmon levels are so low, the whales are very stressed when searching for food. Pursuit from whale watching boats causes more stress.”

However, the proposed “no-go” zone contains just 0.5% of the resident orcas’ federally designated critical habitat and is heavily used by orcas for just a few weeks a year,  so the idea been criticized by both whale watching groups and some orca advocates, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. “The no-go zone is an absurd waste of concern and a futile effort legally,” Balcomb said. “The whales will go where the chinook salmon are in abundance, and it is these fish that should receive our concern.”

AEI poster for the Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting

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Next week in Denver, the American Wind and Wildlife Institute and National Wind Coordinating Collaborative will be hosting their 10th Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting.  For the second time, I put together a research summary poster for the event (here’s the first one).  Most of the presentations at this meeting are focused on direct mortality (birds or bats hitting turbines) and habitat-disruption issues; in recent years, concerns about the sage grouse on the northern plains and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new eagle permit process have also been hot topics.

As usual, my contribution is one of the few looking at the effects of the moderate noise around wind farms.  It offers an overview of the current state of our understanding of the ways chronic moderate noise can change animal behavior and communication, shift population structure, and increase physiological stress.  It includes data from studies on sage grouse, frogs, mammals, and songbirds, as well as discussion of other considerations, uncertainties, and future research needs.

Effects of chronic moderate noise on animal behavior and distribution

Maine town stands firm on one-mile turbine setback

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Each time the residents of Frankfurt, Maine have been asked to weigh in on a proposed wind farm on Mount Waldo, the results have the same: “no thanks”—and by ever increasing margins.  In 2011, an ordinance establishing a one-mile setback passed by 22 votes; the ordinance also set noise limits of 45dB during the day and 32dB at night (a range that’s in line with what turbines would be expected to produce at that distance).  The town was sued by the landowners who were planning to host a six-turbine project; both sides agreed to put the question of allowing the project to go forward to a March 2013 town meeting vote, which fell 47 votes short.  This year, a measure to repeal the 2011 ordinance and revert to state standards (55dB day/42dB night noise limit) was on the election day ballot, and that proposal lost by 138 votes, or 62%-38%.

windagain090414.jpgThe citizens of Frankfurt have spoken clearly and repeatedly.  They have said that they want turbines to stay far enough away from neighboring properties that they will be rarely heard.  While the one-mile setback (and perhaps even moreso the 32dB night noise limit) make the proposed Mt. Waldo project unfeasible, standards such as these are not inherently unreasonable; indeed, several other Maine towns (including Woodstock, Sumner, Rumford, and Clifton) have adopted 4000-5260 foot standards, rather than outright bans.  [The photo simulation above, created by the wind developer, shows a view from about two miles away.] While such standards clearly aim for much smaller impacts on neighbors than more typical 1200-1700-foot setbacks, turbines in the range of a mile away are still a dominant visual presence and can be readily audible; the larger setback/lower noise standards are generally aiming to find a middle ground that allows wind development while minimizing impacts.

The Record Hill Wind Farm in Roxbury is over a mile and a quarter from most homes, and those who spoke up about noise issues early on have found that the turbines are only rarely audible—though they still dislike seeing the turbines over the pond and the string of lights at night.  A look at Google Maps seems to show more homes within a mile of Mt. Waldo than at Record Hill (a dozen or so, rather than a couple), so the option of getting agreements with all of the closer landowners may not be practical.  Across the country, many other towns have weighed the costs and benefits differently and adopted the standard, less restrictive setbacks; they’ve been more willing to accept that a small to moderate proportion of those within a half mile or mile will find the noise intrusive, leading to complaints and in some cases the need to move.  It’s altogether right for towns to make their own choices about how to navigate the grey area of how much visual or acoustic impact they’re willing to live with; Frankfurt and other towns like it are making a clear and reasonable decision.  It’s time for wind developers to accept such choices, choosing sites and designing projects that fit with local sentiments, rather than pushing towns to loosen siting standards simply to make it easier for particular projects to move forward.

UPDATE, 11/5/14: Another Maine town was considering a change in its wind ordinance this week, and that one went the other way, an apt illustration of the self-determination point I just made.  Dixfield had enacted a 2000-foot setback in 2012, but in 2013 the Planning Board was charged with revisiting that decision.  This past summer, a set of amendments were proposed that would have doubled the setback to 4000 feet, and applied more restrictive sound limits as well: 42dB during the day, 35dB at night (again, about what we’d expect at the greater distance).  On Tuesday, in a very high turnout election, the amendments were defeated in a nail-biter, 562 to 557.  So in Dixfield, a 20MW wind project that’s been conducting wind and environmental studies for the past few years still has a relatively amenable path toward approval and construction.