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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.

New York, just like I pictured it…

Arts No Comments »

With apologies to Stevie Wonder and to all my college buds who revel in “skyscrapers, and everything!”, I gotta say that THIS is what puts me in a New York state of mind:

 Wow indeed.  As Eric Sanderson, author of the eye-opening 2009 natural history book Mannahatta, says, “If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park—it would be the crowning glory of American national parks.” More biodiversity per square mile than Yellowstone; more birds than the Great Smokies.

Now, in addition to Sanderson’s compelling graphic representations of the primal landscape of this “island of many hills,” we can also revel in an aural taste of what once was.  Calling Thunder is a  multi-media and VR project put together by a former NPR audio engineer and an NYU School of Visual Arts grad student, and it’s lots of fun to explore.

The presentation is centered around an almost ten-minute video (also broken into smaller, location-specific chunks) that takes us through four locations in the modern cityscape and back in time to hear a bit of what these locations sounded like when they were a wilderness of forest, pond, shoreline, and rocky outcrops. Utilizing sounds from Cornell’s Macauley Library of Natural Sounds, each location is also recreated in a longer binaural audio track that lets us go a bit deeper in to these ancient soundscapes. Also check out this recent NYT article to learn more about the project and hear from its creators.

It’s actually not all that surprising that this island at the mouth of the Hudson would have been home to such a rich and concentrated profusion of wildlife. That’s what woodlands, marshes, and rivers will do for ya.  Next, I’d love to see and hear something like this for the big-city landscape that has most enticed my time-traveller longings: the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento delta….

 

Vermont PSB proposes stricter sound standards

Wind turbines 1 Comment »

Vermont’s Public Service Board has released a draft of new rules for wind turbine siting which embraces a happy medium approach that should minimize adverse effects from noise, while providing wind developers the option of negotiating participation agreements with neighbors who are willing to live closer to turbines than the rules would stipulate.

Current Vermont wind projects are required to keep noise at non-participating homes lower than 45dB outside and 30dB inside; this inside/outside distinction has become a primary bone of contention (especially in summer with open windows), and some sound monitoring has found occasional periods in which noise was slightly above the limits.  45dB is a widely-used noise limit, though it’s also a level at which noise can be quite prominent and disruptive at times.

The new draft rule adopts a fairly precautionary approach, in line with some of the stricter rules that have been appearing elsewhere in places where turbine noise has triggered discontent: the PSB calls for a daytime limit of 42dB and a nighttime limit of 35dB, measured 100 feet from non-participating homes.  In addition, Read the rest of this entry »

Warming spurs new 400km undersea sound channel in Arctic

News, Ocean, Science, shipping, Sonar No Comments »

Beaufort icebreaker cropIn yet another unforeseen consequence of global warming, scientists have begun charting the extent of a new underwater sound channel in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. As recently as the 1970’s, the water here was coldest just below the ice, but in recent decades two warmer layers have developed, one in the first 50 meters of water, and the second at around 200 meters deep.  Since sound in water tends toward the coldest layers, it used to be dissipated by the rough bottom side of the ice, but now it’s reflected between the warm layers and travels much farther. Research in 2014 and 2016 documented sound transmission across 400 kilometers (250 miles), four times farther than before the emergence of this channel, dubbed the Beaufort Lens.

The near-surface has been warmed by an increased flow of meltwater from rivers and by larger ice-free areas exposed to the sun; this slightly warmer surface water has long been present in summer, but used to disappear in winter.  Meanwhile, warmer waters entering the Beaufort from the North Pacific through the Bering Strait (and perhaps even from the Atlantic, through northern Canada) have contributed to the growth of the deeper warm layer. As is the case for most ocean noise research, the US Navy is a key funder; they’re interested in how increased noise transmission might “dramatically impact the effectiveness of sonar operations.”

The full extent of the Beaufort Lens sound channel is not yet known; further research is planned in the spring of 2018. The area affected is likely to vary with annual changes in the influx of warmer waters and to expand over time as longer-term climate change progresses. Increased shipping traffic is projected to be a major factor in rising ocean noise levels in the Arctic over the coming decades; oil and gas exploration could add to the din if the offshore oil industry rethinks its abandonment of these waters in recent years. In addition, general background noise in some areas could also increase thanks to longer-range transmission of whale calls, which have always been one of the primary sources of ambient sound in these waters.

Vancouver reduces harbor rates for quiet ships

News, shipping No Comments »

The Port of Vancouver has enacted a new incentive program to encourage tankers and other ships to adopt noise-quieting technologies.  Beginning on January 1, 2017, ships that have achieved any one of three widely recognized noise-reduction criteria will receive a 47% discount on harbor fees. Ships that have adapted wake flow or cavitation noise technologies will receive a smaller 23% discount.

bc-port-of-vancouversm

This is great news, and we encourage other ports to follow in Vancouver’s enlightened footsteps. It is entirely possible to stop the steady increases in global shipping noise, and even to reverse these trends of the past few decades. Twenty years from now, our oceans can be quieter than they are today, and the isolated pockets still free of humanity’s noise footprints could expand, providing new hope for the world’s ocean creatures.

Much ado about not much in Obama’s offshore oil bans

News, Ocean, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

While I was certainly glad to hear that President Obama has declared most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Alaskan arctic “indefinitely off limits” to oil and gas development, the roar of approval from the media and environmentally-minded public was louder than the action actually merits. And the Atlantic withdrawals appear next to meaningless. I know we should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but even a quick glance reveals more gum than enamel in this one. Nonetheless, I’ll take an over-enthusiastic celebratory shout over even the fading ghost of the chance of much more enduring and disruptive roars from seismic surveys, crazy-loud engines on stabilized drilling platforms, and decades of crew transport and tanker traffic. It’s not for nothing that diverse group of scientists and activists have been calling on Obama to do just this for the past couple of years.

Still, I’m here to temper the joy. Before looking at the maps that put the modest impact of this move in perspective, there’s a red flag right up top that deserves a bit more clarification. All commenters, enviros and energy companies alike, seem to agree that this withdrawal is more consequential than the November announcement by the Department of Interior that no lease sales would be offered in either the Arctic or Atlantic for the upcoming 2017-2022 leasing period, a decision that’s won’t be finalized until July and could have been vulnerable to reversal by the incoming administration. Obama’s new declaration likely closes the door on such a rapid reconsideration of these upcoming five-year plans. But notice that the magic word in the withdrawals is “indefinitely,” not “permanently.” It seems that the door is left open to reconsideration: the White House statement detailing the withdrawal states that the “indefinitely off limits” designation is “to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.” (To be fair, the text is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this 5-year review applies to both the US and Canadian actions, or just the latter.)

UPDATE, 1/11/17: The outgoing administration tied up a worrisome loose end this week by denying six pending applications to do exploratory seismic surveys in the Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas. This is a one-time denial; future re-applications can be considered at any time. New surveys will be necessary to inform any future lease sales in these areas.

So for now, let’s celebrate that at least the first term of a Trump administration has its hands fairly well tied in its ambitions to expand US offshore oil production from its current focus on the Gulf of Mexico and in a 200 mile strip of waters along Alaska’s Arctic coast. Wait, what’s that? Yep, the big withdrawal announcement doesn’t remove any of the areas already being actively developed off Alaska’s northern shores (brown in this map):

artic-obama-withdrawal-map

The good news is that there are currently only a handful of producing wells in that brown strip, on three of the five lease areas owned by one company, Hilcorp, just offshore from Deadhorse (they’re the tiny green areas in the next map, below). In fact, out of the peak of 480 lease tracts in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that had been acquired by energy companies as of 2008, only 43 leases (including 53 lease blocks) are still even nominally in the planning pipeline; 42 of them are in this area that remains available to future leasing as well. Falling oil prices, disappointing test well production, and both logistical and increased regulatory hurdles have led many of the companies that were once so enthused about moving into these waters to formally abandon their leases.

Here’s a look at where things stood as recently as July 2015, when the Chukchi was still the focus of industry hopes and dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

Good news and bad news on BC shipping traffic

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

British Columbia has been a hotspot of concern—and research—about the extent and the impacts of shipping noise. The southern BC coast is close to acoustic saturation, with any increase in noise having the potential to completely overwhelm the underwater soundscape; meanwhile the northern coast holds a few areas that are still nearly free of human noise intrusion, and we need to do all we can to preserve these increasingly rare acoustic refuges. These contentious waters have been roiled in several contradictory though perhaps ultimately productive ways by recent Canadian government actions. In the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a northern pipeline was rejected and a southern one approved; meanwhile, ongoing research aims to identify the noisiest ships and help inform new regulations that could reduce overall noise levels.

bc-tanker-vanc-to-burnabysmThe biggest headlines and fears have been spurred by the final approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that will deliver oil from the Alberta tar sands to an existing port in Burnaby, BC. The port currently hosts about five tankers a month; the increased flow in the expanded pipeline (75% the capacity as the proposed Keystone XL) will necessitate about 35 ships a month, meaning an average of two tanker transits a day past Vancouver as they travel to and from the Strait of Georgia off the coast. These waters are currently burdened by shipping noise 85% of the time, and the increased traffic will push this to 100% in some areas. Concern centers on the tenuous status of the region’s orca populations, which are struggling to find the salmon they need; shipping noise makes it harder for them to track salmon with their echolocation clicks and to communicate with each other as they search for food. “Death by a thousand cuts, and this is a very deep cut,” says Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research. “They’re spending more energy to find less food and we’re adding the equivalent of a rock concert,” she says. “These whales will not survive.”

Environmental groups will likely file suit challenging the approval, citing the government’s failure to mitigate the increased impact. At the same time, though, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Minister Marc Garneau are working on a revamped recovery plan for the 80 remaining resident orcas.  LeBlanc notes that  Read the rest of this entry »

VT towns reject wind farm & town-wide personal payments

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

Two central Vermont towns have voted against plans to build a wind farm on the hills along their border, despite a late-in-the-game offer from wind developers to mitigate some of the downsides by making direct annual cash payments to residents. While landowners that host turbines always receive payments from wind developers, and some projects have included “good neighbor” payments to nearby landowners, this is the first time I know of in which a project extended a cash-payment program to include all local citizens.*

The votes were not close, with over 60% of voters in both towns giving thumbs-down to the wind farms. Iberdola, the developer, had pledged to respect the voters and discontinue its efforts to build there if they lost.

A key factor for many locals was the unusually high number of homes relatively close to the ridge where the turbines were slated to be built (click image to enlarge). As compared to two other large projects in the state (Sheffield and Lowell Mountain), this project had a concentration of homes close enough to more or less guarantee that the turbines would be easily heard regularly—over a hundred within a mile, and another 150 between a mile and a mile and a half. This increased home density (4-6x more than Sheffield or Lowell) continued out to 2 miles, where noise could be audible at times.

What to make of the payment offers?
While many locals took offense at what could easily be seen as an attempt to buy their votes, the cash payments plan was also a long overdue acknowledgement that the presence of turbines in a community does amount to a “dis-amenity,” a negative contribution to local sense of place and quality of life. Read the rest of this entry »

5th vote in Dixfield retains embattled wind ordinance

Default, Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

ME Timberwinds~Dixfield-2mi simulationYou really need to have a history degree to keep track of the twists and turns in the 4-years-and-counting Dixfield Wind Energy Saga. Ever since the adoption of a wind ordinance in 2012, local citizens, Planning Board, and Selectmen in this Maine town have been proposing revisions that have been rejected by voters.  The 2012 ordinance, which still stands, includes a 2000-foot setback and noise limits in accordance with state standards of 55dB day/42dB night.  In both 2013 and 2015, the updated ordinances contained some stricter standards (both include low-frequency standards and the 2015 one would have doubled the setbacks and lowered the night noise limit to 35dB), but both times the voters narrowly rejected the changes. Local officials have remained concerned that some of the zoning language in the 2012 ordinance is unenforceable, and this spring, they once again took a shot at finding a middle ground by resubmitting the language they liked in the 2015 attempt, but tweaked to return the noise limits to the state standard; as one Planning Board member put it, “The vote on the proposed wind power ordinance has provisions that both sides dislike. Maybe that makes it a reasonable compromise.”  But that, too, failed to win support in a June 2016 vote. These 2012-2016 votes were all narrow victories for the pro-windfarm contingent in town, which maintained that the setbacks would preclude development and the low-frequency noise requirements would require cumbersome monitoring.

Now a 5th vote in November 2016 has once again rejected a change, this time a proposal to simply nullify the 2012 town ordinance and let the state regulate the wind farms, which is now the preferred option by those who want the town to get out of the way and let the wind farm proceed. It was once again very close, 616-642 (14 switched votes would have changed the outcome), and I guess it marks the first loss by the pro-wind group, but no one will be happy with the outcome—local officials still say the 2012 version is unenforceable and advocates for greater local control have repeatedly pushed for more stringent standards.  So the merry-go-round will continue spinning, the gold ring still out of reach for all concerned.

For a recap of the tortured history, click on through to read the post I put together in June 2015 recounting the events up till then—including, in fact, a vote recount that dramatically overturned the one previous victory by the more cautionary contingent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Not OK!—Military jets mar Olympic National Park wilderness experience

Human impacts, News, Wildlands No Comments »

Pat McMahon says it so well that I’ll simply reprint this letter to the editor, published in the Peninsula Daily News:

LETTER: Jet noise takes away from natural beauty
Olympic National Park has lost a vital component with the persistent sounds of jets overhead.

Many of us visit national parks as a way to balance the rigors of everyday life with an experience of wilderness and solitude.

During the last week of June, while participating in the annual sea otter census near Hoh Head north of the Hoh River, my colleague and I experienced persistent and loud military jet noise.  The noise would suddenly erupt as the aircraft transitioned from land to sea. One of the abrupt sounds echoed such that we thought we might be experiencing the beginnings of a landslide. During the three days I participated in the sea otter census, we experienced persistent, loud jet sounds most of the day.

One week later while backpacking with my grandchildren at Toleak Point, we experienced the same persistent, loud jet noise. It was not what I was expecting on a coastal wilderness hike in Olympic National Park.

We have suffered a loss in Olympic National Park, where you will no longer be able to get lost in the natural sounds of moving water and marine animals. When you least expect it, the loud sounds of military aircraft will take you away from peacefulness and remind you of the reality of everyday life. There are over 7 billion humans on our planet now, and we need quiet natural places more than ever. Someplace to go where your spirit can regenerate.

It is so sad that we have lost this component of Olympic National Park.

Pat McMahon,
Sekiu, Washington

Humpback bottom-feeding is (somewhat) affected by shipping noise

Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

AEI lay summary of:  Blair HB, Merchant ND, Friedlaender AS, Wiley DN, Parks SE. 2016. Evidence for ship noise impacts on humpback whale foraging behaviour. Biol. Lett. 12: 20160005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0005

Sand lance 350pA new study looks for the first time at the impact of human noise on an important type of humpback whale foraging activity, bottom-feeding on sand lance.  The research took place in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the southern Gulf of Maine, where humpback whales routinely do deep dives at night, rolling to their sides when they reach the bottom to forage for the small fish.

To assess the whales’ responses to human noise, D-Tags were placed on ten individuals over the course of two years.  These temporary suction-cup tags record received sound levels that the animal is hearing, as well as tracking the details of their dives.  The tagged whales made 218 dives, 83 with ship noise exposure and 135 without ships nearby.

Here’s an example of the sort of picture that the D-tags can provide:

Blair 2016 Humpback side roll Dtag track plot

The results show a 29% decrease in the number of “bottom side-roll feeding events” as the received level of the ship noise increased, as well as a 13-14% decrease in both the descent and ascent rate of the dives.  Interestingly, the increase in received noise level was rather small overall (received level was higher when ship noise was present, but not statistically significantly higher), perhaps indicating that the ships were, on average, not all that close.  As is typical, the team used advanced statistical techniques to tease out modest effects from the subtle and varied data. (In case you’re wondering, they used “linear mixed-effects models” with data “square root transformed to approximate normality,” then calculated effects by “summing Akaike weights of all models.” Sounds good to me!)

The raw numbers put the effects into some more straightforward perspective.   Read the rest of this entry »

Belugas struggling in Cook Inlet, St. Lawrence rivers

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science 2 Comments »

Two troubling reports have surfaced regarding beluga whale populations in waters that have become increasingly industrialized and noisy in recent years.  In Quebec’s Saguenay River, the major river system draining into the St. Lawrence, recent years have seen a sharp uptick in dead beluga babies and pregnant mothers; in 2015, these sensitive individuals were half of all known mortalities.  Increased noise is the primary culprit; according to the CBC, “The researchers are working from the theory that beluga calves have soft calls, which may be drowned out by the noise from ships, ferries and boats in the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers.”

In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, beluga range has shrunk dramatically over the past couple of decades (see map below), and accelerated in recent years, as ongoing port construction and oil and gas development has introduced increasing levels of noise into these key waters.  It’s unclear whether the smaller range is simply a reflection of a reduced local population, meaning they don’t need to range so far to avoid competing with each other for food, or if they are responding to the increasing chronic noise.  See previous AEInews coverage of the Cook Inlet belugas here.  Recent NMFS research papers on the changes can be accessed at this link, and this in-depth article from a couple years back is a good overview of the current development and research activities.

Beluga range Cook Inlet 1978-2014

Marine invertebrates also affected by ocean noise

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »

Some of the most interesting new work in ocean noise is revealing the myriad ways that humanity’s sounds can have negative impacts on ocean life other than marine mammals.  Sure, everyone loves our warm-blooded kin, but there’s way more to the ocean ecosystem than dolphins, humpbacks, and seals.  AEInews has been covering this leading edge for years (see these posts on shellfish larvae, crabs, and squid).  Recently, at the triannual Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life conference, held this year in Dublin, a slew of new papers revealed further concerns.

blue-banded_hermit_crabThis post from NRDC summarizes the highlights.  One of the most striking findings was that 6 hours of shipping noise can damage the DNA in the cells of mussels, perhaps due to a stress response; similarly, protein structures in the sensory cells of cuttlefish were damaged by low-frequency noise.  These would be some of the most profound impacts yet discovered; note, though, that the brief summary here does not specify the sound levels—some research on health effects use much higher exposures than are likely in the wild, as a way of identifying possible effects for further study at lower exposure levels.  Other new studies followed on previous ones that suggest many animals respond to noise as if it were a predator; these responses often suggest increased stress, and are waste of precious energy, or disrupt feeding.  Also of note is a one-off anecdotal observation (not yet studied systematically) of a hermit crab exiting its shell after exposure to low-freqency sound; it appeared to be examining its shell, perhaps trying to determine the source of the disruption, or checking for physical damage. While out of its shell, it would be vulnerable to predation.

All this new research is both exciting, as it reveals the vast and subtle role of sound in the natural world, and sobering in facing us with the widespread consequences of our heedless sonic intrusions into wild ecosystems.

 

New court ruling on Navy sonar has big implications

News, Ocean, Sonar No Comments »

A new court ruling could fundamentally change the standards that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service have been using to regulate Navy sonar, by requiring more areas to be set aside as off-limits to the Navy’s routine peacetime operations.  A federal appeals court has ruled that simply determining that Navy activities will have “negligible impact” on populations is not sufficient; regulators must also, and separately, set standards for sonar use that assure the “least practicable adverse impact” on marine mammals and their habitats.  (Download the ruling; it’s only 35 pages, not a bad read!)  As those who have been following the evolution of the NMFS’s ongoing cycle of five-year authorizations for Navy activities will know, the routine procedure has been to dutifully tally the numbers of animals that may be affected—generally they predict relatively few injuries or deaths (more when explosives training is involved), as well as behavioral effects on millions of animals—and then to determine that the long term effects on each species’ population levels will be negligible.  This negligible-impact finding then allows NMFS to issue permits allowing for the predicted effects.

NMFS has been presuming that negligible impact is sufficient to also satisfy the requirement for “least practicable impact.”  Their basic argument was that you can’t get a lower impact than negligible.  However, there were a couple of flaws in this approach.  First, the threshold for population-level effects in this permit was presumed to be 12% of the regional population of any given species being able to hear, and have their behavior potentially changed, by sonar transmissions; clearly, there IS room to reduce this degree of impact.  But more importantly to this court, the NMFS’s approach to determining what areas are “biologically important,” and so worthy of some protection from routine sonar operations, was found to violate the “least practicable impact” standard—and it appears that designating more protected habitat will be essential to meeting this standard.

Note: This court case concerns the SURTASS-LFA low-frequency active sonar, currently deployed on four US surveillance vessels, rather than the mid-frequency active sonar that has been the focus of most of the previous legal wrangling.  This LFA lawsuit challenged routine, peacetime use of the sonar worldwide; by contrast, all the mid-frequency challenges up til now have only sought to constrain testing and training activities in Naval training ranges off the US coasts, not its widespread routine use by over a hundred Navy ships around the world.  So this case has a limited immediate scope, though the underlying theme of setting aside more areas as off-limits is a core element of all the sonar and naval training legal challenges, and this new clarification by the courts on the separate requirement for “least practicable impact” could apply to all NMFS permitting.  

This court ruling does not prescribe a new management plan; it merely found that the current one does not meet the letter of the law.  This case is now remanded back to the district court for further deliberation.  However, we are approaching the end of the 5-year authorizations that have been challenged here (2012-2017), so the most likely consequence of this ruling is that the NEXT round of authorizations, due in 2017, will need to take more care in meeting the “least practicable impact” standard, either by expanding the areas off-limits to sonar, or by more adequately justifying why NMFS feels they are meeting this standard in other ways.

An apparently deciding factor in the court ruling was a 2010 white paper written by four NMFS “subject matter experts,” Read the rest of this entry »

Wind farms increase stress in nearby badgers

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, Wind turbines No Comments »

Lay summary of
Rosanna CN Agnew, Valerie J Smith, Robert C Fowkes.  Wind Turbines Cause Chronic Stress in Badgers (Meles meles) in Great Britain.  Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 52(3), 2016. DOI: 10.7589/2015-09-231.  Download PDF

A new study out of Britain provides one of the clearest looks at whether wind farms create chronic stress in wildlife populations.  The results are striking—badgers living near turbines had stress levels 265% higher than the control groups—though not yet conclusive.

The researchers used what appears to be a very solid study design, testing cortisol levels in badger hair among 25 badger “setts” (dens, occupied by one or more badger families) separated into two groups: 9 “affected” setts were within 1km of wind farms, and 16 control setts were more than 10km from any wind farm.  They made an effort to assure that control setts were comparable in their habitat types, distance from roads, and geographic spread across Britain.

Agnew 2016 badger cortisol 1km and controlThe overall results are fairly clear-cut.  Here’s a graph of the two groups; the boxes show the 3 quartiles of results in each group (the bottom of the box being the level that 75% of the animals were above; the line across the box showing the level where half the animals were above, half below; and the top of the box the level that 25% of the animals were above), with the bars outside the box showing the remaining scatter of individuals.  The mean among controls was .87, and among the affected group the mean was 3.16

Agnew 2016 badger cortisol and distanceA closer look at the results suggests that, as usual in field studies, there is a lot more going on than the means and medians suggest.  Here we see a plot of the 9 affected setts, with distance to nearest turbine on the bottom axis.  Interestingly, there is a wide scatter of results, with some setts (2 of the 9) showing levels very similar to the controls, about half (4 of the 9) having somewhat elevated levels, and only 3 setts being highly elevated, above the highest of the control setts.  Our first image shows this skew, with the upper quartile of the affected box stretching far above the middle line (and thus pulling up the mean to a significant degree).

This skewing does not invalidate the results; such scatter is very typical of most impact studies.  But it does remind us that there is rarely a simple, universal cause-and-effect.  The authors address many factors that could have contributed to anomalous results, and consider most of them to be quite unlikely; as they summarize, “Although certain intrinsic factors, such as sex, age, and disease status, have been thought to influence cortisol levels, it is very unlikely that the 264% cortisol increase experienced by affected badgers is a result of these factors alone.” Still, these and the other possible confounding factors will deserve closer scrutiny in followup studies.

The authors presume that vibration and noise, and likely infrasound, are the primary stressors, but did not do sound measurements as part of the study.  There was no mention of whether badgers are stressed by tall structures, as some small mammals are (due to predation by hawks).  While it seems likely that badgers are too large to be at risk from above, some confirmation of this would have been helpful to add, if true.

The researchers suggest that their results could have implications for controversies about humans who have reported negative reactions to wind farms, noting that badger hearing range is similar to humans.  A final finding was that the badgers did not appear to acclimate to the wind farms: setts near new wind farms had only slightly higher stress levels than those near long-established ones, where the mean remained well above that of the controls.

AEI presentation at Ecoacoustics 2016

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, Wildlands 1 Comment »

I recently returned from the 2016 Ecoacoustics Congress, the 2nd meeting of the new International Society of Ecoacoustics, held this year at Michigan State University in Lansing. It was a very informative gathering of fascinating researchers from around the world; several traveled from Australia, a couple from Taiwan, many from Europe, and some from South America. I’ll add more here soon about this rapidly-advancing field, but for now, I wanted to quickly post a PDF version of my presentation:

Saving High-quality Acoustic Habitat: Identifying areas of relative natural quiet by Jim Cummings

Top researchers urge US to hold off on Atlantic seismic surveys

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Oceana Right Whale map250WEBIn a second letter to the Obama administration, 28 top ocean noise and whale researchers have raised serious concerns about planned seismic surveys along the east coast of the U.S.  The scientists cite several recent studies that shed light ways that the long term health and reproductive rates of right whales have been affected by temporary stresses, and suggest that the planned seismic program could push this extremely endangered species over the edge.  With only 500 individuals remaining, the loss of each individual creates a significant impact on long term population viability.  According to the letter,

Notably, according to analysis by the New England Aquarium, even a small decline of only ten percent in right whale health can impair reproduction or eliminate it entirely. A newly published study shows that a population-wide deterioration in North Atlantic right whale health from 1998 to 2000 was correlated with a drastic drop in calving rates, further indicating that factors influencing health can be responsible for suppressing reproduction.

With previous studies showing noise causing lasting stress in right whales, and that whales that have been through an entanglement experience with fishing gear show lasting health effects and reduced reproduction, the researchers conclude:

In light of the desperate level of endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale and the serious consequences of entanglement, it is critical that other major stressors are minimized or removed to ensure the recovery and long-term survival of this species. The additional stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction.

A year ago, 75 scientists wrote to the Obama administration to urge them to reject plans for seismic surveys and oil and gas development along the Atlantic seaboard.  In March of this year, plans to offer drilling leases for the five-year period 2017-2021 were abandoned.  A future administration may re-open the area for later five-year planning periods, and the oil and gas industry wants to conduct new surveys in the meantime.  Currently, four companies have applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management (BOEM) for permits to conduct surveys in the Atlantic (see maps above and below).  This new letter from 28 of the same researchers who wrote last year asks the administration to follow up its announcement to keep the Atlantic closed to drilling, by now also withdrawing the 2014 decision to open the area to new surveys, in the light of the new research that is not included in the previous environmental impact statement—or at the very least, to refrain from issuing any permits until after NOAA’s planned 2017 right whale status review, which may confirm whether recent slowdowns in the species’ population growth have continued.

The NRDC elaborates on the expertise of these researchers:

The statement is signed by some 28 marine biologists with particular expertise on the right whale, from such institutions as Cornell, Duke, the New England Aquarium, Wildlife Conservation Society (the conservation arm of the Bronx Zoo), UNCW, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For right whales, it doesn’t get much more authoritative than this.

The map at the top of this post highlights designated right whale Essential Habitat (red) and Seasonal Management Areas (blue cross-hatches).  Note that the areas largely overlap; this duplication of effort and noise is among the concerns expressed by regional and national ocean advocacy organizations; oil and gas exploration companies routinely duplicate each others’ surveys, with everyone’s data being held as proprietary information.  The larger map below shows designated Essential Habitat for a wide range of Atlantic species.  One of the proposed survey areas is well offshore, fifty or more miles from the key right whale habitat, while the other three come right to the edge of the designated habits, or even overlap with them.  Seismic survey sounds can routinely extend for tens of miles from the survey vessels (and up to 1500 miles in deep offshore waters), so concerns about increased stress—especially in the nursery areas along the southwest coast—apply to all the proposed survey areas, if they take place when whales are present.

For more from the researchers involved, see this press release that includes several quotes, and for more on the maps, produced by Oceana, see this article from the Coastal Review and this page on Oceana’s website.

Oceana Essential Habitat Map Atlantic500WEB

Taming ship traffic in the warming Arctic

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Ship traffic through Canada’s Northwest Passage has more than doubled since 2004 and tripled since the 1980s, mostly thanks to much longer open-water seasons as the Arctic continues to warm.  Today’s 300-350 voyages per year is expected to double again as both mining and tourism rise in the years ahead.

In response, there are increasing calls to manage the increased ship traffic, both to improve safety and minimize environmental impacts.  A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts draws on recent data, previous Canadian government reports, and First Nations concerns to make the case. “Corridors give people a roadmap to follow,” said Louie Porta, one of the report’s authors. “A robust corridor system is a recommendation for vessels to stick to a very, very small portion of the Arctic waters as opposed to now, where there are no limits – vessels can basically go wherever they want.”  The map below shows 2014 ship tracks criss-crossing key biologically important areas in the western part of the Northwest Passage; here’s a link to the full map.

Pew report-2014 ship tracksCROP

According to an in-depth article on the excellent new website Arctic Deeply:

Government and Inuit groups have identified at least 38 areas of ecological and biological significance (EBSAs) occupying nearly 50 percent of Canadian Arctic waters. “There’s a high concurrence of vessel traffic patterns and areas of biological significance. We can’t say that ships can’t go where the environment is significant, but it’s possible to create a more flexible, dynamic policy that identifies what times of year ships can be in certain locations,” said Porta. . . . Under the proposed framework, shipping corridors would be identified by integrating human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit rights.

The Canadian Coastguard has been working on a similar plan to concentrate shipping traffic.  However, their current proposal for the Beaufort Sea allows shipping in 45% of regional ecological, biological and Inuit areas of significance, while the Pew report’s recommended lanes overlap just 25% of these key areas.

Arctic shipping is a much bigger issue than just the Northwest Passage.  Arctic Deeply has been quick to dive into this important topic, including a recent piece on the impact of Arctic shipping noise on whales, and a long Q&A with a geographer who focuses on climate change and the Arctic.

 

Using gliders to listen for whales 24/7

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science No Comments »

gliderWEBOver the past few years, researchers have developed an increasingly diverse set of platforms for listening in on the world beneath the ocean’s waves.  Now, in addition to recorders deployed in key areas for months at a time and temporary suction-cup acoustic tags on individual whales, a long-anticipated mobile option is moving into more widespread use.  Autonomous gliders offer an enticing combination of attributes: they can operate for weeks or months at a time, exploring a region rather than staying in one place; they can be outfitted with a range of sampling capabilities; and they are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy.  Subsea gliders can dive to 200 meters deep and resurface periodically to transmit data to data centers on shore; they’ve been used for physical sampling of oceanographic data (temperature, salinity, etc.) for many years, but it’s only more recently that acoustic sampling has become common.

The most exciting thing about putting recorders on gliders is that they can operate around the clock, monitoring for whales even in bad weather and at night, when ship-based researchers cannot.  Plus, the cost of operating research ships means that field studies are short and targeted to areas already known to be hot spots for whale activity, while gliders can be used to explore regions that we know less about. In particular, we know that whales tend to move around season-to-season in search of the best feeding opportunities; on the Scotian Shelf in the Canadian Atlantic, some areas that are protected feeding habitat have been largely abandoned in recent years due to lack of prey.  Gliders can help identify where the alternative feeding grounds may be, so they, too, can be protected.

This spring the Canadian WHaLE project (Whales, Habitat, and Listening Experiment) is expanding to the west coast. For three weeks, a six-foot glider will explore waters off Vancouver Island.

“Ocean gliders are a new technique for gaining insights into whale ecology on Canada’s West Coast,” says David Duffus, who leads the west coast project. “Many species of concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are termed ‘data deficient.’ We need more information on whale habitats and whale feeding ‘hot spots’ so we can put in protective measures, such as real time whale-alerts for shipping traffic.”

In addition to the longer-term goal of increasing our understanding of changing habitat use patterns, the gliders could also help reduce ship strikes. There is hope that in some especially busy shipping lanes, gliders may offer a new way to let ship captains know when whales are nearby; this is especially important for the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale.

New maps offer more detail to ocean planners about how animal concentrations change during the year

Ocean, Science No Comments »

An ongoing challenge for ocean regulators has been our relatively coarse understanding of where ocean animals are at any given time.  For many species, we’ve been limited to relatively broad-brush data, such as regional population estimates or having a moderately clear idea about particular feeding or breedings areas, with limited knowledge of where these same animals go at other times of year.  All this has made the crucial task of estimating the impacts of human activities (Naval sonar and explosives exercises, oil and gas seismic surveys, construction of new shipping ports) somewhere between difficult and impossible—leading to a mountain of EISs, agency determinations, and court filings over the question of how best to protect ocean life from our noisy actions at sea. Confounding matters for all concerned, on the matter of protecting key habitat, the Navy has sometimes prevailed and sometimes lost in recent challenges.

Over the past decade or so, several projects have been bringing data together from a slew of historical studies, along with doing new surveys in the field that flesh out our understanding of animal distributions.  These efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

baleen two seasonsWEB500

This week, a team from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Lab released a series of maps and new mapping tools to the public and to other researchers, making available data they’ve been compiling for use in the current round of environmental analysis for the Navy’s east coast and Gulf of Mexico training ranges, and for inclusion in NOAA’s ongoing Cetacean and Sound Mapping project (also known as CetSound).

In addition to an open-access paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, a set of comprehensive species-specific supplemental reports (each one running to over a hundred pages), and a good layman’s overview using the Story Map platform, the Lab also has an online mapping portal, OBIS-SEAMAP, that displays annual animal densities for marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, rays, turtles, and even a few lizards of conservation concern.  OBIS-SEAMAP—short for the Ocean Biogeographic Information System: Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations—archives hundreds of surveys, satellite telemetry datasets, and photo-ID collections, and has now expanded to include long-term archival of species distribution models. Read the rest of this entry »