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Whale earwax ties 150 years of stress changes to whaling, wars, and climate

Ocean, Science No Comments »

A fascinating new study sheds light on changing stress levels in baleen whales over the course of the past 150 years.  Earwax from fin, humpback, and blue whales accumulates over their lifetimes, a bit like tree rings, and the researchers were able to track cortisol levels by sampling the layers in earwax plugs from museum collections.  This study averaged the results from 20 whales; the researchers are now beginning their analysis of over a hundred new samples.

The takeaway is pretty striking: stress levels track well with increasing whaling activity through the early and mid 20th century (blue line below), and dropped dramatically when commercial whaling ended.  In the midst of that span, a lull in whaling was countered by military actions durring WWII, which seems associated with a smaller spike in stress.  And while stress remained low from the 70s through the 90s, it appears to be rising again in the past couple of decades; the researchers suggest that rising sea temperatures are the most closely associated factor in this recent spike, with other anthropogenic factors including shipping noise also likely contributing.

A couple of caveats are in order. Most importantly, this study had only 6 earwax samples that extended past the year 2000, so recent trends may be distorted by the small sample size; the spike in 1995-2000 represents just four whales, and the final plot points include two fin whales that lived only a couple of years (interestingly, their stress loads were low, so the recent dip may be particularly uncertain).

Not surprisingly, there were notable differences between species and a marked variability over the course of individual whales’ lives that did not track with global trends in nearly so striking a way.  Here is a particular whale that suggests increased stress in particular years (including a possible WWII encounter), but which appears less affected by the global whaling trends, perhaps reflecting where it lived:

All this is really quite exciting, though.  We can look forward to much more robust results as this sort of analysis is expanded to more whales, and to other hormonal markers. It’s also possible that as samples from whales that died more recently are included, regional trends related to increased shipping noise may begin to become apparent.  At the same time, this is a good reminder that as much as we like to focus on acoustic factors, the stressors affecting modern whale populations are many, with climate and prey availability being especially pronounced.

 

Cue the lawyers: NOAA approves five Atlantic seismic surveys

Seismic Surveys No Comments »

NOAA has issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations to five oil and gas exploration companies, each of which plans to engage in several weeks to several months worth of surveys off the US Atlantic coast during the one-year permit period, which extends through 2019.  When the Trump administration initially announced its rollback of the Obama-era decision to forego new exploration, it seemed that the lack of Atlantic leasing opportunities in the 2017-2022 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program would undermine the economic incentives to invest in new surveys (and AEI wrote a detailed “don’t worry too much” post).  But the Trump team threw out years of agency staff and scientist work and is now rewriting the OCS leasing program three years early: their new Draft 2019-2024 plan opens up six lease areas in the Atlantic in 2020, 2022, and 2024; new surveys will guide both the government and oil companies as they identify which areas are ripe for development.

However, it is inevitable that court challenges from environmental groups and perhaps coastal states will slow the process down or derail it completely.  So stay tuned….

The surveys being proposed are broad-brush preliminary overviews of the region, and so involve somewhat less intense sound-blasting than detailed site-specific surveys; most of the tracklines are 20-30km apart, and some 100-200km apart, though one survey narrows the spacing to 6km in the core area (see center, below).  But they cover vast areas of the sea, on and beyond the continental shelf.  Here are  sample maps showing the survey lines being proposed:

Most of the activity is well offshore, which helps minimize impacts; from November through April they are pushed a full 90km offshore to keep high levels of noise out of North Atlantic Right whale winter breeding and nursing areas; several other smaller areas are off limits either year-round or seasonally.

Behavioral impact estimates are surprisingly low (and so perhaps a target of legal challenge): under a dozen right, sei, and blue whales, and a few thousand behavioral changes among far more numerous fin and sperm whales; sea turtles are expected to take the biggest hit, especially in far offshore sargassum habitat, with tens of thousands being disrupted and thousands experiencing temporary hearing reductions.

All this region-wide noisemaking, of course, in service of the madness that is continued oil and gas development in the face of a global climate imperative to leave untapped reserves in the ground.  The US is already the world leader in oil and gas production and we have thousands of existing leases that have yet to be developed; the last thing we need is more straws in the ground—especially in deep offshore waters. I have to admit, though, that I am no longer as sanguine about the Trumpistas’ offshore crusade as I was when these plans were first floated a year ago.

UPDATE, 12/14: For those of you wanting to raise your voice about this, you can count on our compatriots at Ocean Conservation Research to keep you updated on the field of play for public discourse.

Court adds new hurdles for BC oil sands pipeline as separate lawsuit calls for emergency orca protections

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Over the past decade, plans for a big expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia have garnered pushback from ocean advocates. In late 2016, the plan gained its final approval from the Canadian government (see AEI coverage), but in late August, a Federal Appeals Court overturned that approval, citing the government’s failure to assess the effects of increased shipping on the dwindling orca population and shortcomings in consultations with First Nations.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, called the ruling “a major win with impacts that will be felt across the country….Our wild salmon and the orcas that they support are critically under threat. The increased tanker traffic that the … project proposes is entirely unacceptable.”

However, Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, remains confident that the court’s concerns can be addressed.  While acknowledging that the government is still being guided by the courts about what level of consultation with First Nations is required, he was confident that the concerns about orca populations have been addressed by the government’s “very robust” Whales Action Plan, which includes limits on the chinook salmon fishery, ship-slowing measures, and moving shipping lanes somewhat further away from key orca feeding areas, saying that “the work the court was looking for has already been done.”

Wilkinson stresses that the increased tanker traffic—350 tankers per year, or 700 transits—is a modest addition to the 3500 other large vessels (container ships and ferries) that ply the waters of this region; he notes that “If we are going to recover the southern resident killer whale, we need to take action that will mitigate noise from all of those sources, not simply six or seven tankers coming out of the terminal every week.”

Still, “they have a lot of work to do now to see if there are ways to lessen or avoid those impacts under the Species at Risk Act,” said Misty Macduffee, a biologist with the Rainforest Conservation Foundation. “The Salish Sea is already too noisy for killer whales, so any traffic you add to it makes a bad situation worse.”

Given the precarious state of the local resident population, you can be sure that government regulators will have their feet held to the fire as this longtime controversy continues.  The government has not yet announced whether it will appeal the recent ruling to the Supreme Court, or send the concerns back to the National Energy Board to address the shortcomings highlighted by the Appeals Court.

Indeed, less than a week after the Appeals Court decision, and on the very same day, the government proposed an expansion of orca critical habitat, while a consortium of environmental groups filed suit in an attempt to force the government to issue emergency protections in the face of the orcas’ ongoing population declines.

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said in a written statement. Last year, the previous

“I have to say, personally, I was very disappointed in the action that was taken by the environmental organizations,” said Wilkinson, the fisheries and ocean minister.“They were the ones who initially asked to convene the multi-stakeholder forum. They effectively attended one meeting and then decided that they would pursue a more adversarial approach rather than a collaborative approach.”

Wilhelmson said the groups were prepared to work with government. “But the process that they set up was all about talking, not about action,” she said. “It was clear that this was just another process that was going to take months and months and months — and the orcas don’t have that.”

 

Slowdowns could reduce noise impacts of increased Arctic shipping

Animal Communication, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Several recent studies highlight the heightened risks of increased Arctic shipping, along with some opportunities to minimize the effects of shipping noise on specific Arctic species and populations.

With the retreat of sea ice, both the Northwest Passage (along Canada’s northern coast) and the Northern Sea Route (along Russia’s northern coast) are seeing increases in commercial and fishing vessel traffic. While the first cruise ship crossed the Northwest Passage in 2016, Russia’s Northern Sea Route is the current center of activity, with both container ships and LNG (natural gas) tankers making pioneering transits without icebreakers over the past two summers.  Total ship numbers are still modest, as it’s not yet cheaper than the longer route through the Suez canal, but these test runs are explicitly intended to chart the course for rapid increases in the coming years; Russia aims to ship 80 million tons of cargo by 2024, up from 10 million tons in 2017 and 2018, and China is moving rapidly to implement a “Polar Silk Road” initiative to encourage companies to build the infrastructure necessary to ramp up this shortcut to European markets.

Two recent studies address key questions about the biological impact of increased shipping on Arctic ecosystems.  The first, from researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, examined the ranges of 80 localized subpopulations of seven key Arctic species, and found that just over half (42) of these would hear increased shipping noise.  Of these, some species are more vulnerable than others:

“Narwhals have all the traits that make them vulnerable to vessel disturbances — they stick to really specific areas, they’re pretty inflexible in where they spend the summer, they live in only about a quarter of the Arctic, and they’re smack dab in the middle of shipping routes,” said co-author Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at UW Applied Physics Laboratory’s Polar Science Center. “They also rely on sound, and are notoriously skittish and sensitive to any kind of disturbance.”

In addition to narwhals, beluga and bowhead whales and some subpopulations of walrus are likely to be vulnerable to increased noise; ringed and bearded seals, as well as polar bears, will be less vulnerable, thanks to widespread populations and spending much of the summer on land rather than in the water.  In addition, the researchers stressed that the Bering Strait is a key chokepoint for both Arctic sea routes, as well as being a crucial migratory corridor.

“I think we can learn a lot from areas that have already been thinking about these kinds of conflicts between ships and marine mammal populations — for example the North Atlantic right whale, or fin and blue whales around California,” Laidre said. “We could aim to develop some mitigation strategies in the Arctic that help ships avoid key habitats, adjust their timing taking into account the migration of animals, make efforts to minimize sound disturbance, or in general help ships detect and deviate from animals.”

A second study took a different tack, looking at whether speed reductions (as implemented in some areas around busy ports) would reduce the noise impacts.  They used an increasingly common metric, “listening space,” the area or volume of water within which an animal can hear its brethren, its prey, or other biologically important sounds. The researchers modeled ship noise in several key chokepoints on the Northwest Passage, calculating the distance over which vessels sounds would impact the listening space for several species, and at how much the effect could be moderated if the ships were slowed in key areas.  And indeed, the effects were significant:

Under quiet conditions, beluga whales experienced a 50 percent listening space loss when they were 7 to 14 kilometers (4.3 to 8.7 miles) away from a ship traveling at 25 knots. When ships slowed to 15 knots, whales could get as close as 2 to 4 kilometers before they experienced the same loss of listening space.

In other words, when a ship was going faster, the area over which it cut a beluga’s listening space in half might be more than three times larger. This difference is important because there are many places where whales cannot distance themselves from ships in the Arctic (in the narrow Prince of Wales Strait, animals can maintain a maximum distance of just 7 to 10 kilometers).

As always, the results are not all as simple as that; the researchers found that for some species, the effects are less in certain weather conditions or for different kinds of ships (container vs. cruise), and that in some situations, the effects can actually cover a larger area when ambient noise is high (as it increasingly is with loss of ice cover). And, as always with vessel-slowing programs, planners must consider the tradeoffs between moderating the noise level and increasing the time during which ships are audible during slower passages.

With the inevitable increase in Arctic shipping, it will be crucial for both governmental and commercial players take steps to minimize the acoustic impacts in these remote waters, among the last areas in the seas where human noise intrusions have been relatively modest.

Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s splashy offshore oil talk

Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

An AEI big-picture commentary

Once again, a Presidential announcement about offshore oil development has sent the media and environmental advocates into a spasm of headlines and press releases that presumes the words being uttered in DC actually reflect on-the-ground (or in this case, under-the-waves) reality. In late 2016, there was effusive praise for an effectively symbolic Obama decision to not offer leases in Alaskan and Atlantic waters (AEI’s “much ado about not much” post questioned the prevailing celebratory outburst). Fourteen months later, we’ve got a mirror-image outcry over Trump’s base-pumping proclamation about “unleashing America’s offshore oil and gas potential” through a National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for the years 2019-2024.

This one sure does sound bad: opening up 90 percent of our continental shelf, with 47 lease areas including regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest that haven’t even had vague proposals for decades. Despite the boom in American oil and natural gas production that occurred during the Obama years, with much of the increased production being exported, the new administration is intent on exploiting as-yet untapped deposits, ignoring the climate imperative to leave as much oil in the ground as we can. Vincent DeVito, a Counselor for Energy Policy at the Department of Interior, practically twirls his mustache with this comment from the official DOI press release:

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance. This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Sure, that’s just the ticket; these eager beavers can’t wait to dominate a fading industry—a decade from now, since that’s how long it takes to get offshore wells on line.

And so begins a two-year planning process that will needlessly and expensively repeat the one just completed in 2016.  For we already have a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, with a finalized plan set to run from 2017-2022, which the government (both federal and states), oil industry and energy consulting firms, and environmental groups spent two years and who knows how much money to complete.  As always, these plans are revisited, revised, and occasionally overhauled every five years. But this gang may not be around in 2021-2022 when it’ll actually be time to once again jump into this particular vat of no-fun-for-anyone. So let’s just tear it up and do it all again now!

UPDATE, 2/16/18: Caroline Ailanthus rightfully notes that diving back into processing hundreds of thousands of public comments and writing up a new programmatic EIS will keep BOEM staff from fulfilling their many other tasks, which include assessing new science and identifying key data gaps, smaller project-level environmental assessments, and overseeing new research. She asks, “Do you suppose interfering with research in this way could be the point of this massive do-over?”

But before we get too caught up with the swarm of freaked out bees in our bonnet, let’s step back and consider the actual energy development landscape as it exists in the real world, as distinct from the fever dreams of this administration’s oil and gas cheerleaders. Read the rest of this entry »

More evidence of fish being affected by shipping, energy development noise

Ocean, Ocean energy, shipping No Comments »

A couple of recent studies have added to the increasing evidence that anthropogenic ocean noise can have deleterious effects on fish. As the years go by, it’s becoming clear that it’s not just whales and dolphins that are struggling with human noise in the sea.

A lab-based study of European sea bass found that recordings of pile driving sounds (often associated with bridge, port, or wind farm construction) and of drilling sounds triggered subtle yet troubling changes in behavior. The sudden bursts of pile driving induced a startle response, while both kinds of sounds increased stress, as measured by the fishes’ respiration rate. In addition, both sources of human noise appeared to suppress their normal predator inspection behavior, which could make them more susceptible to predation (though after a half hour of drilling noise, the bass returned to normal anti-predator behavior).

Ilaria Spiga, a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University and the lead author of the study, explained, “Exposure to underwater noises can make it harder for fishes to detect and react to predators. . . If fishes actively avoid areas where these sounds are present it could prevent them from entering spawning grounds, or affect communication between individuals.”

The question of communication was at the heart of a new study from the same team that has been investigating how shipping noise can reduce the communication space of whales. The new research, led by Jenni Stanley, focuses on two key commercial fish, cod and haddock. Utilizing the network of bottom-mounted hydrophones that they’ve deployed in Massachusetts Bay for the past decade, the researchers recorded the grunts of cod and the “knocks” of haddock, along with the noise of ships in the area. The most striking effect was the difference in noise levels between the cod’s winter spawning site near the Boston shipping lanes and their spring spawning site near the fishing fleets of Cape Ann, north of Boston. While there were many more boats near the spring site, these smaller vessels resulted in overall sound levels 11-15dB lower than at the winter site, which in turn allowed the cod to maintain dramatically larger communication space. (The distances over which cod could be heard were not measured directly, but rather calculated based on the source levels of their grunts and the prevailing levels of ship noise.)

At the quieter spring sites, the mean communication distance was 15 meters (below 11m during the noisiest 10% of the time, and over 19m at the quietest 10% of times), while in the winter sites, they could only be heard out to 2.7 meters (with 10% extremes of under 2.1m and over 3.4m at the very best of times).  The haddock spawning sites had intermediate noise levels, and at their loudest could be heard at slightly longer range than the winter cod, though a weaker form of their call had the shortest range of any of those assessed.

The authors note (see full paper here):

Mounting evidence suggests that acoustic communication can affect the survival and reproductive success of fishes, including direct evidence for Atlantic cod. . . .Unlike haddock who have a wide acoustic repertoire, Atlantic cod are thought to be less versatile vocalists during courtship. . . If anthropogenic sound reduces the efficiency of the vocalizations utilized by these species, this interference could potentially impact their reproductive success and survival through the incorrect assessment of the quality of potential mates or competitors, reduction in the ability to attract mates and/or the mistiming of gamete release.

While stressing that we still have much to learn about how fish may compensate for noise (by using other cues to find each other, vocalizing during quieter moments, increasing the intensity of their sounds, etc.), the authors conclude:

This research highlights the need to gain a better understanding of the spatial and temporal use of unique habitats that are predictably used for critical life history events in declining populations. Identifying and better understanding these consequences [at all levels of the food chain] is important to advancing the management of shared acoustic space.

BC ship-quieting study stymied by lack of orcas

Bioacoustics, Science, shipping No Comments »

Last fall’s innovative 2-month voluntary slow-down of ships traveling to and from the Port of Vancouver was successful on one count—average overall shipping noise was reduced by 44%—but a stark absence of the normally abundant resident orcas stymied the equally important second line of inquiry: how would reducing the noise level, but spreading more moderate noise over longer time periods, affect orca behavior?

About 60 percent of the ships transiting Haro Strait complied with the voluntary speed restrictions; even this level of participation succeeded in reducing the overall level of ship noise by 2.5 decibels, very close to the 3dB target set by the International Whaling Commission a decade ago. Thanks to the logarithmic scale of decibel measurements, a 3dB reduction amounts to cutting the sound energy in half. This is great news, a real-world confirmation that the noise of global shipping can be reduced relatively easily—albeit by increasing transit time.

It’s this element that marine mammal experts remain uncertain about. Slower ships remain audible for longer during their passage, though at a lower volume; perhaps worse, the quiet periods between the passage of large ships became notably shorter and noisier, thanks to the lingering presence of ships in the mid-distance. What is more livable: a constant lower noise level or trading off louder periods for interims with relatively little noise? As researcher Scott Veirs notes. “I’m not sure which I would prefer, but we definitely don’t know which the whales prefer.”

An excellent in-depth article on the Seattle nonprofit news site Crosscut tells the tale of the researchers waiting on shore to monitor whale behavior. But rather than seeing whales on most days, there were no orcas at all during the first month of the slowdown, and only six appearances in the second month. A stark lack of salmon kept the orcas out of the area; salmon shortages are the primary factor driving the decline in the Southern Resident orca population. A recent modeling study by a diverse group of researchers suggested that increasing salmon numbers by 15% while also reducing shipping noise by half would allow the resident population to recover. (The decrease in salmon numbers is compounded by a boom in populations of seals and sea lions, who also eat salmon.)

The Crosscut piece zeroes in on the questions facing British Columbia, where new oil and gas ports and expansion of existing pipelines could add even more ships to the mix:

Piloting his 31-foot research boat Wishart back to Seattle from the San Juan Island study site, Rob Williams mused on his 20 years studying killer whales. “A whole lot of science has been done already,” he said. It may be time to start making some  difficult policy decisions about vessel noise, Williams said, and that means weighing safety issues and economic tradeoffs alongside concern for the whales. A number of factors, including the Canadian government’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline to export oil to Asia, could drive future increases in Port of Vancouver vessel traffic.
“What we have to do next is to have some really uncomfortable conversations. . .about how much of this acoustic space do we think it is fair to ask the whales to give up.” Williams said. “And how much are we willing to give up to have killer whales persist?”
“And those aren’t science questions,” he continued. “They are really tough value judgments.”

Australia launches world’s first continent-spannning acoustic observatory

Bioacoustics, Science No Comments »

The burgeoning field of soundscape ecology (also dubbed ecoacoustics) is poised to take a remarkable leap forward during the just-beginning Australian summer  of 2018.  By mid-year, researchers plan to install 400 microphones in 100 locations spanning the continent’s seven diverse ecoregions.

At each location in this Australian Acoustic Observatory (A20), two acoustic recorders will be placed in relatively wet habitats for that biome (wetland, river, creek, drainage, depression) and two in relatively dry areas. Every six months or so, researchers will swap out the SD cards at each location and upload all the files to the project website, where everyone can engage with this extraordinary dataset.

David Watson, one of the Chief Investigators, noted in an introductory article:

One of the strengths of this project is our ability to use sound to picture time. We can prepare fascinating visualisations that contain months’ worth of data in a single image.

Some of the effects we’re measuring, such as the impact of cane toads and other invasive species, have very obvious acoustic signatures. They are dramatic to hear, but even more striking to see in a sonograph (essentially a graph of sound).

We’ve pioneered the use of false-colour spectrograms to visualise long duration recordings. These make clear the flattening effect of invasive species, or the long-term subtle shifts caused by climate change.

You absolutely want to check out those two links he provides! The first is to a short article containing an interactive 24-hr spectrogram which plays several minutes from each of three different times of day; the second is a thorough project description that was shared at conferences when they were in the pilot phase last year, and includes a deeper look at their innovative approach to spectrograms and the types of information they expect to glean in various habitats. It all promises to be a fascinating and exciting step forward for soundscape ecology.

Oysters and scallops: no ears, but they still hate loud ocean noises

Ocean, Seismic Surveys, shipping No Comments »

A recent line of research ups the ante on how widespread the impacts of human noise in the ocean may be. Oysters appear to suddenly and dramatically close up in response to low frequency noise at intensities that are relatively common—beginning at sound as levels as low as 120dB, and ramping up rapidly above 140dB. The figure at left shows how fast the shells closed at top and the degree of closing at bottom (from the minimal to maximal responses observed). Effects were strongest from 10-200Hz, a frequency range that includes shipping and seismic survey sounds.

While oysters, like many other shellfish and crustaceans, do not have ears, they are sensitive to vibrations; earlier oyster studies speculate that they may be responding to subtle seabed vibrations, though it’s also possible their tissues are responding to water-borne particle motion. Another recent paper looked at scallop behavior and mortality after exposure to airguns, and reports that negative effects were seen for months after exposure:

“Exposure to seismic signals was found to significantly increase mortality, particularly over a chronic (months postexposure) time scale, though not beyond naturally occurring rates of mortality. Exposure did not elicit energetically expensive behaviors, but scallops showed significant changes in behavioral patterns during exposure, through a reduction in classic behaviors and demonstration of a nonclassic “flinch” response to air gun signals. … Hemolymph (blood analog) physiology showed a compromised capacity for homeostasis and potential immunodeficiency, … with effects observed over acute (hours to days) and chronic (months) scales. … Given the scope of physiological disruption, we conclude that seismic exposure can harm scallops.”

As our colleagues at Ocean Conservation stress in their coverage of these new developments, all this is part of a rapidly expanding awareness of the ways that our noise compromises ocean life far beyond the whales and dolphins that were the focus of initial concern and research. Early this year saw the publication of a comprehensive review of the potential impacts of marine seismic surveys on fish & invertebrates. The authors point out that on many topics (fish catch rates, startle responses, tissue damage) results have been mixed/contradictory, with some studies finding negative impacts and others finding no response; their paper lays out key areas for future research that could begin to clarify these ambiguities.

The authors of a 2016 study on the effects of shipping and construction noise on lobsters and clams paint the picture quite clearly:

Tim Leighton, Professor of Ultrasonics and Underwater Acoustics and study co-author, said: “There has been much discussion over the last decade of the extent to which whales, dolphins and fish stocks, might be disturbed by the sounds from shipping, windfarms and their construction, seismic exploration etc. However, one set of ocean denizens has until now been ignored, and unlike these other classes, they cannot easily move away from loud man-made sound sources. These are the bottom feeders, such as crabs, shellfish and invertebrates similar to the ones in our study, which are crucial to healthy and commercially successful oceans because they form the bottom of the food chain.” Co-author Dr Chris Hauton, Associate Professor in Invertebrate Ecophysiology and Immune Function, added: “I think these findings raise the prospect that anthropogenic sounds in the marine environment are impacting marine invertebrate species in ways that have not been previously anticipated.”

The Leighton and Hauton study, using sound playbacks mimicking a ship at 100 yards and wind farm construction at 60 yards, found that both lobsters and clams changed their digging behaviors, and triggered changes in their overall activity level (lobsters increased, clams decreased); they found no marked effects on brittlestar activity.

Clearly, we are still in the early stages of understanding how our noises may be changing ocean ecosystems. In addition, the recent review paper affirms a longstanding concern that noise may act as a synergistic stressor, making animals more susceptible to other known stressors such as food shortages or rising ocean temperatures, noting that “Single stressors related to sound exposure may show no effects in isolation but when combined with other stressors effects may become pronounced.” New study designs are beginning to tease out these inter-relationships, giving researchers and ocean managers new tools that can move both science and policy forward in constructive ways.

Fishermen blasting “seal bombs” 30,000 times a month off Southern California

Ocean, Science No Comments »

They look small, about the size of a “cherry bomb” firecracker.  They’re legal, exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act thanks to their functional purpose: protecting fishermen’s nets from seals and cetaceans poaching their catches, including squid, anchovies, and tuna.

But they are loud and used freely in waters off southern California. Divers report physical pressure waves hitting them from up to a mile away; they’re audible in the water out to tens of kilometers and have been recorded by Scripps Acoustic Ecology Laboratory hydrophones 37,000 times a month at peak fishing season—up to 500 blasts an hour at times.

A recent article in Hakai Magazine delves into this little-known ocean noise issue. “The amount of use is alarming,” says Scripp’s Simone Baumann-Pickering. “We know the noise poses a potential threat.”  While earlier NOAA research with dolphin carcasses demonstrated they can cause physical damage at extremely close range (less than a meter), the Scripps team did not document any physical injuries, though they stress that behavioral impacts are likely.  Divers and whale watch captains confirm that whales tend to avoid areas where the seal-bombs are in use; yet fishermen counter with reports of dolphins and whales being unfazed by their use (keeping the uncertainty cycle spinning, conservationists speculate that such non-response could be related to deafness from previous exposure to this or other loud noise).

In an effort to move beyond the conflicting anecdotal report, the Scripps researchers are now looking more closely at the effects of the noise on Risso’s dolphins, a squid-loving species that is commonly exposed. As Baumann-Pickering affirms, “In science, you have to measure the effects.”

Note: Hakai Magazine, published by a foundation in British Columbia, is well worth being on the radar of any ocean lover.

 

SD county learns that 2000ft setbacks not quite enough

Wind turbines No Comments »

Clark County SD is in a legal battle over its decision to increase wind turbine setbacks from 2000ft to 3960ft (three-quarters of a mile). The Clark County Commission approved the 400MW Crocker Wind Farm, but based on local experience with a smaller wind farm, decided that more distance was needed between turbines and non-participating homes.  As reported by the Watertown Public Opinion:

County zoning rules originally called for a minimum 1,000-foot setback from residences, but according to Commissioner Francis Hass, the commission didn’t do enough homework before allowing a 2,000-foot minimum setback for the 11-tower Oak Tree Project built four miles north of the Clark a few years ago.

“We absolutely don’t want to kill wind energy,” Hass said. “We just didn’t look good enough when we put in the first set. Those towers are fine with the exception of being too close to a residence. “Towers do make noise, and when the weather is right they make a lot of noise.”

The wind company, Geronimo Energy, challenged this decision in court, and in August the court declined its motion for a partial summary judgement. Initial reporting suggested the County’s standards had been upheld, though a followup clarified that the judge simply ruled that he would not issue a determination until after a full hearing on all the challenges included in Geronimo’s claims. (There are some conflicting press reports on this; a September article says Geronimo has appealed to a higher court.)

Meanwhile, the state PUC continued its consideration of state permitting for the 200-turbine wind farm. A September hearing attracted both farmers eager to host turbines and local residents opposed to the project. A decision was expected in late January 2018, but in October, the PUC denied the application, saying that Geronimo’s plans were still too much in flux to proceed with the approval process, which by state law must be concluded within six months. The uncertainty was mostly related to negotiations with US Fish and Wildlife over land swaps and environmental impact assessments for about 40 of the turbine locations, leading to the submission of four different possible turbine configuration plans. However, the quicker than expected decision was triggered by an intervention request by opponents of the wind farm, which noted that the Clark County half-mile setback would necessitate the relocation of 35 further turbines.

Geronimo is free to resubmit its application once the turbine layout is finalized.

 

VT legislature accepts turbine noise limits, drops setback requirement

News, Wind turbines No Comments »

More restrictive noise limits on industrial wind turbines are one key step closer to implementation in Vermont. In May, the Public Service Board proposed that the current 45dB limit be reduced to 42dB during the day and 39dB at night, along with a setback requirement of 10x the turbine height (4000-5000ft for modern turbines). A legislative committee has been reviewing the proposal to assure it complies with the “legislative intent” behind the bill that called for revised standards, and this month that committee dropped the setback requirement, then in its next meeting accepted the noise limits.

A key element in the legislative intent was to encourage continued expansion of renewable energy in Vermont. The PSB was charged with crafting a policy to balance this goal with concerns that the previous siting standards were leading to noise complaints and health concerns. Residents near three wind projects have filed complaints that the 45dB limit has been exceeded, and/or that it did not achieve its stated aim of keeping noise inside homes below 30dB. Sound studies carried out after these complaints have found noise levels a few decibels over the targets, at times; in addition, there is much debate over exactly how much outside noise is reduced as it enters the house.  It appears that the 6dB reduction in nighttime noise levels is likely to resolve many or most of these potential problems.

The proposed day and night limits are in part designed to facilitate the use of turbines that utilize now-standard “noise reduced operation” at night when needed; NRO settings change the blade angles to reduce noise (and, to some degree, power output) by about 3dB. (See this PSB letter discussing its final proposal, including responses to comments submitted on the draft.)

While lower sound limits will surely help reduce the extent of complaints, noise violations are complex to enforce; this is why setback limits are often used as a way to achieve similar aims. The challenge there is that setbacks don’t account for situations (topography and wind direction) that can reduce noise levels, so they can be overly restrictive. The PSB aimed to counter this concern by incorporating a process whereby the setback requirements could be reduced if the wind company showed they could do so without exceeding the noise standards. But the legislative oversight committee rejected this approach, opting to rely solely on noise limits.

As a practical matter, achieving the 39dB limit will require setbacks of several thousand feet in most cases. This has caused wind advocates to decry the change, claiming that ridgetop energy will be effectively banned. Margaret Cheney, a member of the PSB (which changed its name in July to the Public Utility Commission) stressed that the rules as proposed should not stop wind development and that they would not have offered standards that would do so. The PSB/PUC believes that wind developers can take advantage of the “participating landowner” provisions to negotiate agreements with neighbors who live close enough that the 39dB limit may be difficult to meet. As the PSB letter noted, “It is the Board’s goal that more ‘buy-in’ from neighbors during the planning process will lead to projects with more support and less controversy.”

To explore the recent history of rulemaking and noise issues in Vermont, see this collection of earlier AEInews coverage.

Finally, FAA is sued for resisting required air tour plans

Wildlands No Comments »

After seventeen years of obstructionism, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is being sued for effectively ignoring a law requiring the development of air tour management plans (ATMPs) for National Parks. The National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000 requires the FAA and National Park Service (NPS) to prepare an air tour plan for any park with over 50 flights per year, or develop voluntary agreements with air tour operators. Since then, the National Parks Overflight Advisory Group (NPOAG), which includes representatives from the FAA, NPS, air tour industry, and environmental groups, has been meeting regularly, but very little has come of it.  Two small parks have voluntary agreements, and two others are in the works, but progress on the more challenging parks has been nearly non-existent.  Most egregiously, the planning process at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been absurdly slow: the EIS process began in 2007, but four years later, rather than releasing a Draft EIS, a scoping document with proposed alternatives was released….and that 2011 document is the last we’ve heard! Still no management plan, let alone even a Draft EIS.

So, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibilty (PEER), along with a coalition of Hawaiian groups has sued the FAA to force them to jumpstart the planning at Hawaii Volcanoes and five other parks, calling for them to adopt voluntary agreements or release draft plans within the next two years. Rather than completing the required ATMPs, the FAA has been issuing thousands of routine “interim” authorizations to air tour operators, effectively grandfathering in all existing flights. “Our lawsuit is designed to curb damaging overflights and require the FAA to finally manage what is now basically a flying free-for-all,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER. “Unless the FAA acts, air tour operators have no incentive to negotiate voluntary restrictions to minimize impacts on parks,” Ruch said. “Our lawsuit is meant to jumpstart a planning process that should have begun a generation ago.”

Hawaii Volcanoes Superintendent Cindy Orlando notes that helicopter noise is audible in 98% of the Park’s wilderness areas; “There basically isn’t a single location in the park where a visitor can go and be guaranteed of hearing only natural sounds,” she said. The NPS is not involved in the lawsuit, but has a long-standing position of wanting to move the ATMP process forward at a faster pace. Indeed, in 2015, after the FAA rebuffed NPS input as it redesigned flight corridors in California, two NPS staffers gave voice to their agency’s frustrations:

“The Federal Aviation Administration has a very different mandate than [the NPS],” notes Vickie Ward, the NPS overflights program manager (and a member of the NPOAG). “We look at why parks were established and what were the resources being preserved. In that difference in our mandates, it’s made it really difficult for us to find common ground.”

“We have a long history of [the FAA] not agreeing with us,” said Judy Rocchio, a program manager at the NPS Pacific West regional office. “We feel we’re obligated to get this noise off of the wilderness areas. And so we’re just trying to do our job, and they’re just ignoring us.”  For Rocchio, the longstanding dispute over air tours speaks to her broader frustrations with the FAA’s priorities. The FAA “seems to be more of an advocate … for air tours, and I’m not sure they need to be advocating for the air tour industry,” she said. “Shouldn’t they be partnering with another federal agency to protect resources?”

The new lawsuit targets Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala in Hawaii, Glacier in Montana, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Muir Woods National Monument in California. It’s not clear what criteria the groups used in targeting these particular parks; only the two Hawaii units are under intense air tour pressure (about 15,000 flights at Volcanoes, 5,000 at Haleakala), with the others being high-profile parks with flights numbering 400-900 per year. Perhaps the thought is that some of these may be candidates for voluntary plans, so that the two-year timeline might create a framework for moving more rapidly in a variety of situations in other parks in coming years.

In 2004, planning nominally began at several other parks with many thousands of flights per year (Lake Mead, Mt. Rushmore, and Badlands National Park), with Death Valley being added in 2009, though nothing’s been finalized at any of these.  And the NPOAG website notes that the 2002 rule-making document targeted several other units to be covered, including Golden Gate and Point Reyes in California (which, together, would likely protect Muir Woods as well), Petrified Forest in Arizona, Mt. Rainier, and two units in New York Harbor. Twenty-six parks currently have over 50 flights per year and so are subject to the Air Tour Management Act (see p.6-8 of this FAA summary); twelve have over 600 flights per year (often concentrated into the summer season), and nine have over a thousand.

Author and filmmaker Doug Peacock speaks for countless others when he sums it up like this: “There ought to be a few places in the world where you indeed can measure some silence in your own life, as it used to be everywhere. The interior of a large chunk of public lands, a national park, is your best shot at it. It’s rendered impossible by the noise of a single helicopter.”

 

Shipping, conservation expand in the Arctic

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

The Arctic is one of the last expanses of the world ocean that has escaped the increasing din of shipping traffic over the past fifty years, but this respite may soon be ending.  China and Russia are rapidly ramping up plans to take advantage of retreating sea ice along the northern coast of Siberia, opening up a new sea route from China to Europe that is significantly shorter than traveling through the Panama or Suez Canals. Meanwhile, the Canadian and Inuit governments have designated a large National Marine Conservation Area in Lancaster Sound, smack dab in the middle of the North-West Passage, which is similarly ripe for increased shipping in the coming decades.

The so-called Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) will benefit from Russia’s fleet of forty icebreakers and eleven Arctic ports; by contrast, there are no Arctic ports on the US/Canadian coastline (one deep in Hudson Bay closed last year). Rob Heubert, a former member of Canada’s Polar Commission, notes that “The Chinese are taking the long view and they’re building ships, icebreakers, and ports to capitalize on the future, which may not be as far off as many think.”  Maine Senator Angus King is championing an “Arctic” port in Portland, Maine to become the first US landing point for this increased Asian shipping traffic.

Some Russian observers suggest that the country’s investment in ports and icebreakers is a “money-losing… Soviet-style undertaking” that is bound to fail, with the port fees necessary to pay for this infrastructure likely to drive ships outside Russian territorial waters into the Transpolar Sea Route as that becomes accessible. Nonetheless, last week a Russian natural gas tanker made the fastest-ever transit of the Northern Sea Route, traveling for the first time without an ice breaker (the ship was designed to do some ice-breaking on its own).

Wherever and whenever Arctic sea lanes open up consistently enough to spur rapid increases in annual transits, it will be crucial to direct the traffic in ways that minimize the impact on relatively pristine arctic soundscapes. To this end, both the Canadian Coast Guard and the Pew Charitable Trusts have been working toward management of the North-West Passage; see this earlier AEI coverage.

The new Marine Conservation Area will preclude oil and gas development and seabed mining, but will not stop ship traffic. Lancaster Sound, now to be known by its Inuit name Tallurutiup Imanga, has been called the Serengeti of the Arctic thanks to its concentration of wildlife, especially narwhals, belugas, and polar bears. (Check out this image and video gallery!) In 2009, the Inuit sued the Canadian government to stop plans for seismic surveys in the area, beginning the process that culminated in the recent plan for joint management of these precious waters. Jackie Dawson, a University of Ottowa environmental geographer, is working with Inuit communities to identify ecologically and culturally significant areas, with hopes to designate “no go” and “go slow” zones to reduce sonic intrusions and the risk of ship strikes.  This is exactly the kind of work we need to see across the polar regions, before the ice melts enough to change Arctic soundscapes forever.

SD farm country adopting larger turbine setbacks

Wind turbines No Comments »

South Dakota has the nation’s 4th-best wind resources, and wind is currently the source of 30% of the energy produced in the state, the 2nd highest proportion the nation—yet it lags behind several of its great plains brethren in ramping up its wind industry, which currently has about 1000MW of installed capacity. North Dakota is home to nearly three times as much wind energy, while Iowa and Oklahoma each host nearly seven times as much. But if recent push-back is an indication of things to come, the wind boom that many SD farmers hope for may not materialize unless they adopt a more collaborative approach to working with their neighbors.

Two counties and one township have grappled with turbine setbacks in recent months, and all of them have pushed the pause button on business-as-usual turbine siting. Letcher Township adopted a one-mile setback, Lincoln County voters affirmed their planning commission’s half-mile setback for the 150-turbine project planned there, and Davison County is taking some time to develop a new standard after declining to adopt a 1000-foot standard in May. (See notations on the map for a general idea of their locations, in relation to the state’s 14 wind projects and five production facilities.)

Letcher is a tiny place, but the populous came out overwhelmingly against the prospect of a wind farm coming to town. “Of the 77 registered voters, 50 of them did sign a petition against it,” Letcher Township Supervisor Murray VanLaecken said. “For families who own an acreage, there’s no benefit of being by a wind farm…it’s just going to cause them to have to look at it and when they go to sell, what is their property worth now with wind towers surrounding it?” VanLaecken said.

Of course, for those leasing land to wind companies, the prospect of $10,000 or more per year for each turbine is very attractive. “There’s no legal crop we can grow to make that much money off of one acre,” said Sara Bovill, president of the Lincoln County Farm Bureau and co-chairwoman of Farmers and Friends for Wind, which encouraged Lincoln County voters to reject the proposed half-mile setback.  David Iverson, a landowner at the Buffalo Ridge II Wind farm affirmedRead the rest of this entry »

BLM to reassess motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country

Vehicles, Wildlands No Comments »

A nine-year court battle over motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country has ended with a compromise agreement in which the BLM will take a new look at 13 travel management plans covering about 6 million acres. A consortium of environmental organizations had challenged 2008 travel plans from six BLM field offices that included 20,000 miles of trails.  The settlement drops the challenges in one field office and about half the targeted acreage, while mandating site-specific reassessment in such popular areas as the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Dolores River, Gemini Bridges, and the Book Cliffs, as well as Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument. The settlement allows oil and gas leases sold in 2004 to proceed, mostly in the Uinta Basin.

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, commented that “the negotiations leading up to the settlement agreement were hard fought, and contentious. In the end, we came to a place that provided sufficient certainty to the conservation groups that BLM would take seriously its responsibilities to minimize the impacts of off-road vehicle use on all public resources, including wilderness.”

On the other side of the table, Paul Turcke, the attorney for off-highway vehicle groups, said, “We’re not turning cartwheels over this, but given the alternatives and given the fact that we could participate effectively and make positive changes to this agreement, we think it’s the best option for moving forward.” Motorized recreation enthusiasts applauded the lack of any immediate changes on the ground; no routes were closed as part of the settlement, though some are likely to be shut down during the renewed planning process. Turke notes, “Everyone gets a fair shake in the future process and they can challenge the outcome if they choose.”

The State of Utah and several counties were strongly opposed to the settlement, largely on the basis of longstanding local claims to old roads in the desert. 3000 miles of these so-called RS2477 roads are laced across the BLM land subject to the settlement. “The settlement creates a new regime that is designed to limit access and close travel routes,” the Utah attorney general’s office wrote in a brief filed in February, asking U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to reject the settlement; “Requiring the BLM to enhance wilderness characteristics, for example, can only be accomplished by closing roads.”

Not incidentally, SUWA’s legal challenge contended that the BLM relied too heavily on the old county roads when it made its 2008 decisions about where to authorize travel, claiming that some of these routes are no longer visible on the ground. The legal challenge targeted the need for more assessment and protection of archeological resources, along with calls for more wilderness protection and designation of three areas of critical environmental concern. Any reductions in motorized use will enhance opportunities for quiet recreation and increase the area within which hikers can experience the deep solitude of the desert and its canyons.  The ideal solution will be creating more separation between motorized and quiet recreation sites.

As Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley said after the settlement was announced, “BLM must take a fresh look at where it will allow off-highway vehicles to drive, this time with an eye towards protecting the very things that make Utah’s redrock country so special — its wildness, opportunities for solitude, and irreplaceable archaeological sites.”

Interestingly, the indispensable High Country News ran a piece recently entitled “The making of a motorhead,” which puts a human face on the debate. At the time I’m posting, the article is in the subscribers-only portion of their site, but if it opens up to others, it’s well worth a read. This excerpt captures some of the tone: Read the rest of this entry »

Why do we subject endangered orcas to ANY commercial whale-watching?

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Here’s an idea that’s so obvious that I’m amazed it isn’t at the center of public discussion about the declining orca population in and around Puget Sound. I happened upon it online (well, not exactly happened upon, thanks to my “whales noise” Google News section…); it was a guest commentary in a Vancouver Island paper, and I’ll let the author, Diane McNally, speak for herself:

Massive declines in salmon populations over the past 100 years have made it harder for the orcas to find food. Bodies of the males qualify as toxic waste, as they do not offload toxins in milk while nursing babies. Increasing ocean noise makes it harder for orcas to communicate with each other and to find food.

The remaining 78 southern residents are surrounded by buzzing boats any time they can be found. Can anyone say “watching” them during every daylight hour, as often as their location can be determined, for every day of their lives in the “whale watching season,” April to October, is helping them?

Put yourself in the orcas’ place. It’s as if you had neighbours who never turned off the leaf blower, lawn mower or loud music. Studies have shown behavioural changes in response to both noise and the presence of boats.

One next step in supporting the southern residents’ struggle to regain population viability is a retreat from entertaining ourselves by chasing and stressing individuals of this endangered population in the wild. We have the technology — underwater cameras and hydrophones — to see and hear them while allowing them the dignity of living their lives free from our desire to be entertained by them as they simply try to survive.

Indeed! Why should we humans have the “right” to hover around these wild creatures as they go about their days? Let an orca sighting become something rare and special: glimpsed from shore or happened upon while out on the water in your sailboat or on a ferry crossing.

Here’s a little taste of the life of an orca (if clicking the “play” arrow doesn’t start the audio after a few seconds, then click inside the white bars along the bottom and that’ll trigger it):

Ships to slow near Vancouver Island to reduce noise impacts in key orca feeding area

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About 14 times a day, a large ship passes through Haro Strait on its way to or from the Port of Vancouver. From early August through early October, Port authorities are asking them to slow down, in a pilot project to assess how that might reduce the overall sound levels of shipping in this biologically important area. “I’d say it’s a first in the world, a project of this scale,” Orla Robinson, manager of the port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program, said. “We’re trying to understand the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and the effects on the whales.” In other locales, including San Francisco, ships are asked to reduce their speeds to reduce the chance of striking whales.

Haro Strait is a narrow passageway between Canada’s Vancouver Island the American San Juan Island, and is a prime summer feeding ground for the resident orca population, which has dwindled to less than 80 members. The voluntary speed restrictions will ask all ships to slow to 11 knots (about 13 mph) through a 16-mile corridor; cruise ships and container ships often run at 18-20 knots, while bulk carriers travel at 13-15 knots.  The slowdown will reduce the noise of each ship as it passes by 40% or more, though it will linger in the area a bit longer; the net effect is expected to be beneficial by reducing the degree of impact on animals in the region.

“Underwater noise is one of the principal threats to southern-resident killer whales,” confirmed Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean research program. “The effect is thought to be most significant in years when chinook returns are poor, as predicted for 2017.” Marine researcher Rob Williams, co-founder of Oceans Initiative, added: “I’m extremely supportive of this effort. Slowing down is an inexpensive way to reduce noise levels quickly.”

Researchers will monitor noise levels and track how many ships heed the voluntary limit. They will also look at operational and financial impacts on the shipping industry, recognizing that there will be times when docking schedules or tide patterns may make it difficult for ships to slow down. If 50-70% of the ships moderate their speed, the project will be considered a success and will provide good data from which to consider further action in future years.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, there would have been some skepticism,” said Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the B.C. Chamber of Shipping. “As shipping companies have learned more about the ecological challenges, the more they have pitched in to participate. We’e seeing healthy support now. People are supportive of getting the data.” More than 30 companies so far have agreed to participate in the pilot program “where operationally and economically feasible, on a transit-by-transit basis,” including Holland America, Washington State Ferries, Westwood Shipping Lines, COSCO, and container shipping giant Maersk.

UPDATE, 8/7/17: As of today’s start of the research program, 54 companies have agreed to participate in the voluntary slow-down, including 100% of the members of three key trade associations, Chamber of Shipping, Cruise Line International Association Northwest and Canada and Shipping Federation of Canada. It appears that the vast majority of the expected 800 ship transits occurring during the study period will be adopting the slower speeds.

Listen live to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln (red dot in map above).

End of the line for Falmouth wind turbines

News, Wind turbines No Comments »

The Falmouth Board of Selectmen have decided not to continue the legal battle over two wind turbines that began operation at the town’s wastewater treatment facility in 2010 and 2012. The decision comes in the wake of a ruling from Massachusetts Superior Court last week that called for immediate cessation of turbine operations. Wind 1 has been shut off since 2015 by a previous court ruling, and Wind 2 has been operating only during the day after being found to exceed the background ambient noise at night by more than is allowed. The turbines have been challenged on several legal fronts, including the initial permitting, nuisance, and decreased property values. The town will now grapple with the costs of dismantling and paying off loans taken to erect the turbines; most of the financial obligations are to state-funded clean energy programs, and there is hope that some or most will be forgiven, though nothing is certain on that front.

In the recent case that apparently broke the camel’s back for the Selectmen, the judge affirmed a 2013 Zoning Board of Appeals nuisance ruling that called for the Building Commissioner to “take whatever steps necessary to eliminate the nuisance” at the property of Barry and Diane Funfar. The town appealed that ruling (legally challenging its own Zoning Board of Appeals), and this case was addressing that appeal. Several other cases remain in the pipeline, but the Selectmen’s decision should lead to an end to the legal battles.  While the judge in this case affirmed the nuisance experienced by the Funfars, he rejected the property value claim, noting that the most reliable data, from sales in 2012 and 2013, show a 3% decline in value in the Funfar’s neighborhood, not enough to point to the turbines as a deciding factor.

Mr. Funfar, who used to spend much of his time creating extensive gardens in his yard, had found himself unable to be outside, and eventually, even to stay in the house.  The Funfars had begun spending time in the Dominican Republic to escape the noise impacts.  “It’s rather euphoric,” he said after the ruling was announced. “We had a very good life here in our retirement, and I had my grandkids up here all the time helping me in my yard, and we can get some of that back now….It’s just such a tremendous relief to me and it’s still taken these past couple of days to sink in.”

Susan Moran, chair of the Board of Selectmen, noted that “As a board, despite all our personal differences and philosophies, we feel we have done all we can do to honor the town meeting ballot votes in 2013 as well as the 2015 nonbinding vote for the town to continue to operate the two turbines.” Appealing this decision and continuing to fight the other challenges would leave the town “right where we have been for the last seven years — with uncertainly and mounting legal expenses,” Moran said.

Christina C. Rawley, a member of the Falmouth Climate Action Team, which had fought to keep the turbines operating, said, “It’s very upsetting and extremely disappointing. We’re all sort of [taken aback] by it and trying to decide now what is the best way forward.” At the same time, Rawley stressed that “We are not coldhearted people by any means….and it was never anybody’s intent to harm anyone. How does a town or a nation make [its] decisions is what is at question here. How can we possibly meet the problems that are outstanding in our society?”

Since the very beginning of all this, the Falmouth situation has been a good example of the pitfalls of siting turbines close to densely populated neighborhoods. Few wind turbines have so many homes so close; at least 184 homes within a half mile of just these two turbines (a third turbine, privately owned, continues to operate; the legal challenges have been primarily directed at the town-run turbines). With so many homes so close, it was inevitable that a critical mass of impacted neighbors would arise.

In 2012, the town spent several months on a collaborative Wind Turbines Options Process that brought together town officials, impacted neighbors, and renewable energy advocates to explore whether the town could find ways to address or compensate those struggling with the noise. The possibility of the town buying some of the homes that had been most affected was on the table. At that time, about 10% of those within a half mile had lodged formal complaints (7 out of 18 homes within a quarter mile, and 12 of 166 from a quarter to half mile).  Likewise, in 2010, amidst the initial outcry about unexpected noise levels after the first turbine went live, the town sent log sheets to 300 homes, for residents to note the times when noise was an issue for them; about a dozen were returned, or under 5%. We can presume that more people were bothered than participated in these initiatives, but it remains the case that it’s generally a relatively small percentage of the population that is especially sensitive to noise impacts.

This is one reason that towns have taken a wide range of approaches to wind turbine siting, ranging from minimal setbacks of as little as 500-1000 feet (in areas that don’t mind that their residents will regularly hear the turbines), to moderate setbacks of 1200-2000 feet (accepting that some residents will experience troublesome noise at times), to precautionary setbacks of 4000 feet or more, which hope to avoid causing noise intrusions for even the more sensitive members of the community. All of these approaches can be justified; the question is how any given town chooses to balance economic benefit (often high in farm and ranch communities), climate-change mitigation (minimal for any given project, but necessary collectively), changes to sense of place (also a factor in many rural communities), and impacts on the most noise-sensitive or otherwise susceptible members of their community.

The reality of life-changing impacts on a relatively small proportion of those hearing turbines is an especially fraught element in the debate; many infrastructure projects or industrial developments cause similar rates of disruption among their nearby neighbors. Courts and local governments have come down on different sides of this sensitive question, and it is here where towns will continue to face the most difficult and distressing decisions.

Noise sprawl threatens protected areas, critical habitats

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, Wildlands No Comments »

Lay summary of:
Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas. Rachel T. Buxton, Megan F. McKenna, Daniel Mennitt, Kurt Fristrup, Kevin Crooks, Lisa Angeloni and George Wittemyer (May 4, 2017). Science 356 (6337), 531-533. [doi: 10.1126/science.aah4783] Online access (subscription)

Ongoing data analysis by researchers from the National Park Service and Colorado State University is revealing an increasingly detailed picture of the sprawling impact of human noise in protected areas around the United States. The most recent paper from this groundbreaking team digs into the sound models to offer a better sense of how extensive the issue is, and highlights the promise of focusing conservation efforts on preserving areas where the human noise footprint remains small.

The researchers zero in on two key thresholds of noise: 3dB above the natural ambient sound, which marks a doubling of noise levels (causing a 50% reduction in the area over which sounds can be heard), and 10dB of excess noise, which is a 10-fold increase, leading to a 90% reduction in listening area. As the authors note, these are “levels known to interfere with human visitor experience and disrupt wildlife behavior, fitness, and community composition.”

The new maps include all protected areas in the US: federal, state, and local. Not surprisingly, the “natural” areas near cities tend to be very loud (yellow on the maps below, up to 30dB of additional human noise). Read the rest of this entry »

VT PSB moderates stricter turbine noise limits

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

The Vermont Public Service Board has released its final proposed rule for wind turbine noise.  After taking comments on the draft released a couple of months ago, the PSB chose to increase the proposed night time limit from 35dBA to 39dBA; the daytime limit remains 42dBA, three decibels lower than the current limit.

The rule now goes to the state legislature, where the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules must sign off on them; the key question there will be whether the proposed rules are consistent with the state’s commitment to renewable energy, and whether the rules reflect the intent of the legislation that called for the PSB to develop new noise limits.  According to VTDigger, the sponsor of that bill, Chris Bray has said that “he trusts at this point that board members arrived at defensible sound limits, expressing confidence that the three-person PSB has the knowledge to come up with reasonable standards that also protect turbine neighbors from unreasonable harm.” Bray noted also that the dire predictions of wind supporters that stricter rules will preclude further development are similar to those raised when the state adopted new net-metering rules for solar power, which solar advocates decried as a death-knell for solar in Vermont; instead, solar development has boomed, mostly in areas such as brownfields, landfills, and old parking lots where the state was hoping new projects would be concentrated. “I think that’s good news,” Bray said. “Maybe two years from now we’ll look at the [wind turbine sound] rules and say, ‘This represents good news.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Trumpistas target NOAA’s ocean noise oversight

Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar No Comments »

Tip o’ the hat to longtime partner in crime Ocean Conservation Research for catching this insult to the ears of whales, seals, fish, and crustaceans. As part of its hatchet-wielding rampage through America’s regulatory arena, the Trump administration has gone beyond “merely” making plans to re-open the Arctic to drilling and issue new permits for seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast (both of which will doubtlessly engender legal challenge). Now they’ve also come for us!

The recent Presidential Executive Order Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy explicitly calls for the Secretary of Commerce to “take all steps permitted by law to rescind or revise” NOAA’s Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing.  This planning document was the result of many years of collaboration among regulators, research scientists, environmental organizations, and the primary ocean noise-makers (oil and gas interests and the Navy).  As OCR’s Michael Stocker notes, “All of this work threatened with a stroke of a pen…”

There’s nothing in the NOAA Guidance document that would stop, or even slow, current oil and gas exploration or Navy testing and training activities. It more or less serves as a formal declaration of the current state of the science and a framework within which further research can be prioritized and carried out. Most importantly, the Guidance provides a one-stop source for physical and behavioral thresholds that are used to determine noise impacts when applying for new permits. Indeed, wiping it from the books would do little more than complicate the compliance efforts of the Navy and oil and gas industry as they plan future activities, as well as NOAA’s legally-mandated environmental assessments. Yet another case of the bull in a china chop approach to governing.

UPDATE, 6/3/17: Here’s an article with some good quotes from scientists involved in creating the Technical Guidance that is being targeted.

Shipping industry embracing voluntary noise guidelines

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Turning science into policy is a long, slow road.  The 2004 launch of the Acoustic Ecology Institute more or less coincided with the emergence of shipping noise as an environmental concern; symposia held by the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA Fisheries) in 2004 and the Marine Mammal Commission in 2005 marked the start of growing scientific awareness that moderate chronic noise may be a bigger issue for marine life than the loud, transient sounds of sonar and airguns.  AEI has focused on this key question from the start in special reports and our ongoing news/science coverage.

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) completed an at times sluggish six-year process and adopted voluntary noise reduction guidelines for large ships. Since then, the pace seems to be picking up as the shipping industry, port authorities, and eco-certification programs have all begun embracing the need to slow or reverse the long-term trends of increasing shipping noise in most of the world’s oceans.

This month, the port industry trade magazine Port Strategy included a long feature article that brings the story up to date.  Among the new and encouraging developments is the work of Green Marine, a sustainability-certification outfit that works with 28 shipping companies and 38 ports in the US and Canada, including biggies like Seattle and New Orleans.  After partnering with Transport Canada last year on a review of the current state of science in Understanding Anthropogenic Noise, Green Marine has now announced shipping-noise criteria that will be rolled out this year as a voluntary add-on for shipping companies that are part of their certification program, then will become a mandatory element of the Green Marine certification in 2018.  The 5-stage criterion is modest to start, with increasing degrees of commitment (it’s unclear whether companies are expected to continually deepen their commitments, or not).  The exciting news is that shipping companies are voluntarily committing to go beyond what’s required by current regulations; Green Marine Executive Director David Bolduc says:

“It is important to underline that the maritime companies and ports that are certified by Green Marine have voluntarily accepted to adopt the new underwater noise evaluation criteria with no regulations obliging them to do so. These participants made the commitment to address the issue more easily. For others, it was a relatively new issue; they needed to learn about noise, its sources, its potential impacts, and the mitigation measures.

“The indicator is a great tool to help them understand underwater noise and, most importantly, address this emerging issue. [It] is the result of collaboration among the industry, environmental organisations, the scientific community, and government representatives. Two intensive years of research and discussions were necessary to develop the five-level criteria.”

Meanwhile, following up on an AEI note from January, the Port of Vancouver’s inclusion of quiet ship guidelines as part of its reduced-fee Eco-Action initiative has generated its first takers: “We’ve heard anecdotally from some vessel sectors that they plan to upgrade their fleets to meet the new incentive standards,” says the port. “In the first quarter of 2017, two vessels have applied and been awarded a bronze level discount.”

And in the US, NOAA released an Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap in late 2016 that will become the framework for ongoing research and management of ocean noise, including an emphasis on managing acoustic habitat.  All this points to the next decade becoming a real turning point, as the past fifteen years of increasing awareness is channeled into constructive action to begin reducing our noise footprint in the seas.

 

 

SoCal shipping noise: risk and opportunity sites in whale habitat

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary of
Redfern JV, Hatch LT, Caldow C, DeAngelis ML and others (2017) Assessing the risk of chronic shipping noise to baleen whales off Southern California, USA. Endang Species Res 32:153-167. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00797 (open access)

A paper published earlier this year (on my birthday; what a nice present!) takes a close look at shipping noise levels along the Santa Barbara/Los Angeles coast, with particular attention to key habitat areas for several whale species. This region of offshore waters includes crucial feeding zones on the edge of the continental shelf, as well as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary; meanwhile, some of the shipping traffic headed into the port of Long Beach (near LA) passes between the Sanctuary and the coastline.

The pictures generated by the authors surely qualify for the thousand-words designation, so I’ll let these key graphics tell most of the story—you can click any image to see a larger version.  First up, here’s the number of ship transits occurring in these waters over five months (August to November 2009):

Next, here’s how the accumulated noise of all these ships translates into sound levels. The researchers modeled the sound levels at two different frequencies; this is because the 50Hz band is especially important to blue and fin whales, while the 100Hz band is most important to humpback whales. Note that at both frequencies, there are some areas that remain relatively protected from the worst of the shipping noise. Read the rest of this entry »

Oil companies spurn Trump’s enthusiasm for Arctic oil, gas

News, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Despite the noises coming from the Trump administration and Alaska’s elected officials, it appears that any new initiatives to expand offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic will be falling on deaf ears among fossil fuel companies.

“We think there is almost no rationale for Arctic exploration,” Goldman Sachs commodity expert Michele Della Vigna said in late March. “Immensely complex, expensive projects like the Arctic we think can move too high on the cost curve to be economically doable.” Indeed, unless oil again approaches $100 a barrel, these areas are likely to be ignored; just last year, oil companies gave up on hundreds of leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas that they had spent $2.5 billion to acquire back when prices were high enough to justify their plans there.

Despite President Trump’s oft-repeated pledge to open up America’s “vast untapped domestic energy reserves,” the fact is that even without the offshore Arctic or the Atlantic coast (both excluded from new leasing from 2017-2022 by the Obama administration), the areas already open to offshore development “make available more than 70% of the economically recoverable resources, which is ample opportunity for oil and gas development to meet the nation’s energy needs.”

For more details, and maps of the Arctic and Atlantic leasing areas, see this AEInews report from January 2017.
UPDATE, 4/28: Just after writing this, notice of the latest Trump Executive Order crossed my desk, this one explicitly targeting the offshore areas removed from the 2017-2022 lease sales by Obama’s team. Meanwhile, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill to re-open Arctic waters; and for added freakiness factor, a NC Congresswoman has introduced a bill to force a lease sale within a year, and exempting this effort from NEPA (ie EIS) provisions for five years!  If any of these proceed into action on leasing, no doubt a court challenge will ensue, centered on the presumed non-reversibility of Obama’s last-month actions.
UPDATE, 5/2: This is encouraging news: the Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a vast area of the Alaskan ice shelf as critical habitat for polar bears.  The oil and gas industry argued that its short-term activities should not be limited by concerns over longer-term global warming; ie that their ships, drilling, etc. are not in and of themselves responsible for any global warming.  The lower court ruling is not necessarily based on on the idea that oil and gas development should be stopped in the name of climate caution; rather, it simply upholds the FWS contention that the ice shelf is threatened by warming, and that this habit should be spared further intrusions in order to maximize the chances that the polar bears can survive. It’s reassuring that the current Supreme Court was not interested in pushing back against such climate-driven policies.