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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

Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

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

BeaufortChukchiLease2008WEBlg

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

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

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

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

Ocean, Ocean energy No Comments »

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

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

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

Scientists object to new Atlantic oil/gas exploration plans

Bioacoustics, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

A letter from 75 leading bio-acoustics researchers urges President Obama to derail current plans to open much of the US eastern seaboard to oil and gas exploration and development.  Last year, the Department of Interior opened the door to new seismic surveys from Delaware to Georgia, which will clarify which areas of the continental shelf are most promising as drilling sites; these could begin as soon as this year or next.  So far, nine applications have been filed for surveys, all 50 miles or more offshore.  In January of this year, Interior announced plans to issue drilling leases beginning in 2017, with the initial five-year leasing period targeting roughly the same region (UPDATE, 3/15/16: Interior cancels lease planning); in conjunction with opening this area, development was banned in some Alaskan waters (small areas off the north slope and a larger area in SW Alaska).

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

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

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

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

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

Seabed mining facing high hurdles from NZ EPA

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy No Comments »

In recent years, there’s been a growing sense of concern in the ocean noise community about the worldwide emergence of plans for mining the seabed for a wide range of minerals.  Some of these plans are moving toward completion, as mining companies have solved the cost and technical complications and begun submitting actual project plans to regulators.  An early glimpse of this process has just emerged from New Zealand, where the EPA is now evaluating a permit to mine rock phosphate offshore from the South Island.  See this article in Pundit (a tamer Kiwi version of Huffington) for a very good summary of the process going on there.

In particular, Pundit’s Claire Browning notes that the first seabed mining proposal to come before the EPA was turned down, and she details some of the extravagant non-acoustic impacts of the current project—the process involves scooping up masses of seabed and dumping most of the material back, creating plumes of debris (including uranium and other heavy metals) in the water column.  All this in a Benthic Protected Area where no bottom-trawling is allowed.  Meanwhile, a consortium of environmental groups is stressing the insufficient acoustic and population assessments included in the application:

…the company had carried out no visual or acoustic surveys to establish what whales were in the vicinity, and there was no empirical data on noise that would be generated by the mining. Instead, CRP contractors had constructed a model extrapolating noise from a shallow-water mining operation, a model that, for example, did not take into account noise from pipes taking sediment 450 metres up to the ship – or back down.

“There are a number of potentially serious impacts on marine mammals. More rigorous environmental impact assessment would be needed to assess the severity of the impacts of this development,” said Ms Slooten.

It’s especially good to see that local watchdogs are thinking broadly about the potential acoustic emissions, including the sounds of material being pumped through pipes; our colleagues at Ocean Noise Conservation have been raising questions about such largely-ignored subsea industrial noise around oil and gas sites for several years.  Also interesting in the Pundit piece is a moderately deep dive into the question of how much the Kiwi EPA is taking the precautionary principle into account; the lack of concrete direction to do so was a controversial element of the statutory directions to the newly-formed agency, but it appears that its decisions are indeed deferring activities that carry uncertain risks to sensitive areas.  It’s worth noting that seabed mining may not always be a bad thing; much terrestrial mining has high environmental and social impact, with the resulting raw material shipped large distances to its eventual markets.  Such pressure may be relieved at times by moving offshore; in this case, the company’s website highlights the benefits of mining rock phosphate domestically rather than importing it from Morocco, the primary current source.  But of course, offshore sites need to be thoroughly assessed, and any new activity directed toward areas that will create minimal impact on marine life.

 

Airguns infect summer soundscapes in remote polar Atlantic Ocean

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

AEI lay summary of:
Holger Klinck, Sharon L. Nieukirk, David K. Mellinger, Karolin Klinck, Haruyoshi Matsumoto, and Robert P. Dziak. Seasonal presence of cetaceans and ambient noise levels in polar waters of the North Atlantic. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. EL176, 132 (3), September 2012.

I somehow missed this study when it was published a couple years ago, but the findings are so striking that I can’t resist turning back the clock to cover it.  Researchers from Oregon State University and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory analyzed data from two hydrophones deployed for a year in some of the most remote areas of the very northern Atlantic Ocean, and found seismic survey airgun sounds to be a dominant presence, audible for 95% of each day for five months a year (and over half the hours for two more months).

Klinck map and 3 spect350Luckily for the fin whales who are the most populous marine mammal in these remote waters east of northern Greenland, they tend to show up toward the end of the summer airgun season, and concentrate their polar activity in the winter, when the airguns go silent.  But blue whales and a relatively few sperm whales like to be there in late summer, and must co-exist with the steady rumble of airgun sounds, which increase the ambient sound levels by an average of 5-10dB, and up to 20dB.  By contrast, the roar of storm-driven winter waves adds up to 12dB, and the calls of thousands of fin whales add up to 10dB.

The authors don’t speculate about the location of the seismic surveys being heard in the region, which lies well north of the Arctic Circle (the two sites are between 75 and 80 degrees north latitude; the Arctic Circle is at 66.5).  But it’s a straight, if rather long, shot from the North Sea oil fields between the UK and Scandinavia, with Norway’s offshore arctic developments a bit closer. I suspect that the offshore concentrations of red between Norway and the study sites are likely active oil fields, with heightened airgun activity; the dark red North Sea hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of ongoing seismic surveys.

Shipping global graphic WEB Polar Atlantic CROP copy

What’s especially discouraging about these findings is that this is one of the increasingly rare parts of the world’s oceans that is largely spared the scourge of shipping noise.  The more northern site lies close to a minor shipping lane between Norway and its remote arctic island outposts, but compared to the din of ships in most of the temperate latitudes (where shipping noise has roughly doubled in intensity each decade since the 1950s), this should be—or couldbe an acoustic refuge. The map to the right shows the study areas, on the sparse fringes of the red cloud of global shipping routes. (Ed. note: Fish, which are not as wide-ranging as whales, and often use low-frequency sounds, are also likely affected by the increased background noise caused by airguns.)

The whales who visit seasonally seem to be putting up with the additional noise from seismic surveys; hundreds of blue whales are heard during 60-80% of hours in August and September, even as airguns continue to be heard nearly 100% of hours; the newly-arriving fin whales are heard close to half the time in those months, increasing to 70-80% of hours as their numbers climb to an estimated 6000 in mid-winter. Of course, at close range the whale calls are much louder than the distant airguns; but the steady hum of airguns at 5-10dB above what would otherwise be the background sound level can make it difficult for whales to hear their brethren across the dozens or hundreds of miles that they might otherwise communicate. As the authors note: “(D)uring the summer months. . . reverberation effects associated with the propagation of airgun signals often caused a continuous series of transient sounds.” 

The authors note that recordings made in the early 1970s show winter-time sound levels similar to those recorded in this study; that study, however, did not find the summertime increase that is now associated with the distant seismic surveys.

Deepwater Wind agrees to limit activities to protect Right whales

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean energy No Comments »

Deepwater Wind, which recently won the first-ever competitive lease auction for US offshore wind, has signed an agreement with a consortium of environmental organizations that affirms its intention to minimize potential impacts on critically endangered Right whales. The wind farm’s location, in Rhode Island Sound, is host to foraging Right whales each spring; the agreement delays any pile-driving activity until after May 1, when whales have generally moved north.  In addition, pile driving later in the year will take place only during the day, when any lingering whales can be more easily seen.

Deepwater2 WEB

The agreement marks an important step forward in marine conservation, with wind energy developers agreeing to key provisions that the Navy and oil and gas exploration companies have resisted: changing their operational schedule to avoid times of particular biological importance in a given area, and agreeing to limit loud noise-making activities to daylight hours.

The current agreement covers pre-construction activities, including pile-driving five foundations, for meteorological towers and perhaps test turbines (the press release does not specify). The Deepwater ONE wind farm will ultimately be home to 150-200 turbines; construction of that phase of the project will create a significant noise footprint, and we will hope that the company agrees to continued protective conditions at that time. A similar agreement by Deepwater for its smaller 5-turbine Block Island Wind Farm does cover the actual construction period; that press release does not mention daylight-only construction, but does delay construction until May. However, a broader agreement between environmental groups and several wind developers does include a provision precluding pile driving at night or in heavy fog; one hopes that this good-faith agreement will indeed be reflected in actual final operational plans. 

Oregon project aims for floating offshore turbine future

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After nearly five years of floating offshore wind farm planning off the coast of Maine, a project in Oregon may leapfrog those efforts.  An initial go-ahead from federal ocean regulators marks the starting line for a pilot project off Coos Bay, which will need to clear several more regulatory and financial hurdles before being built.  

Perhaps optimistically, Principle Power (the developer) is holding a target date of 2017 to have its initial five turbines operational.  These will be huge, 6MW, 600-foot turbines, similar in design to a model that’s already being tested in the water in Portugal.  The project is expected to cost $200 million, which would build around 100MW of capacity on land, as compared to the 30MW this pilot project will construct; Principle Power expects that steadier, stronger offshore winds will let these turbines operate at a higher capacity factor than onshore projects, partially making up that difference. Of course, experimental pilot projects are always far more expensive than later, full-scale build-outs; still, the financial feasibility of projects like this is a work in progress.

Virginia offshore wind developer agrees to avoid right whales for evaluation, but not for construction

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean energy, Wind turbines No Comments »

Last fall, Dominion Virginia Power won the first federal lease for developing wind power off the coast of Virginia.  As with all offshore energy and Naval activity on the east coast, one of the first environmental concerns to be raised was what measures would be taken to minimize impact on the critically endangered North Atlantic Right whale. While their population has been more or less steadily rising since 1990, with only about 400 individuals, they remain vulnerable to any negative impacts, from ship strikes to increased stress levels, which may reduce reproductive rates and success. (See NOAA’s most recent stock assessment report for details; it notes lower reproductive rates than other Right whale stocks, and concludes that the population will be negatively affected if it loses more than 0.9 whales per year to human impact.)

Turbine being boated offshoreWith all this in mind, Dominion Virginia Power’s first commitments to the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority fell far short of what many had hoped.  The company agreed to limit installation activity of test platforms (meteorological towers and preliminary test turbines) during the period when whales are most apt to be migrating past the Virginia coast, but made no such commitments about later, and much more extensive, pile-driving for hundreds of turbines in the eventual wind farm.

“We’re happy to talk” with environmental groups, said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion Resources Inc.’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions, though she noted, “we can’t overlook the costs of compliance.”

The company said they’d minimize their first-phase activities from late November to late March.  The whales spend the summers in a large area off the coast of New England and the Canadian Maritimes, and concentrate at birthing grounds off the coast of northern Florida in winter. NOAA maintains a reduced speed zone along the mid-Atlantic coast, to protect migrating Right whales, from Nov.1 to April 30, close to two months longer than the company set aside as their cautionary season; even the speed restriction is seen by some as a potential obstacle to offshore wind data collection.

UPDATE: See also this article from last fall, which suggests that Dominion plans only to erect a 2-turbine test platform, with full-scae development of 200 or more turbines on hold until costs come down for offshore wind construction.  Some wind advocates suggest that Dominion, which has fought renewable energy initiatives in the state, secured the lease largely to prevent others from developing a large offshore capacity.

Global industry council forms new ocean noise working group

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The World Ocean Council, an “international, cross-sectoral alliance for private sector leadership and collaboration in Corporate Ocean Responsibility,” has launched a new initiative to address ocean noise issues.  Planned to complement the ongoing efforts of the oil and gas industry’s Sound and Marine Life program and the International Maritime Organization’s ocean noise policy work addressing shipping noise, the WOO’s Marine Sound Working Group will be especially helpful in raising awareness of ocean noise issues among ocean industries—including ocean mining and port construction—that have been less involved in the issue over the past decade or so of intensive study.  

In an interview after the initial meeting of the Marine Sound Working Group, co-chair Brandon Southall noted efforts to find alternatives or noise-masking techniques for some noisy activities in which the noise is a by-product, rather than a necessary component of the work; he also stressed ongoing efforts to better understand the widespread effects of chronic moderate noise, in contrast to researchers’ earlier focus on localized, acute effects of specific loud noise sources.  See the full 6-minute interview with Brandon here.

Biologically rich areas off limits while Gulf seismic EIS is conducted

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Thirty months after environmental groups sued to force ongoing seismic survey programs in the Gulf of Mexico to be subject to more robust compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, a settlement announced this week requires full EIS’s to be completed within thirty months from now.  In the meantime, surveys will be kept out of three key biologically important areas, as well as from nearshore waters during the spring calving season of bottlenose dolphins.  In addition, the oil and gas industry committed to continue working on alternatives that may affect sea life less widely, particularly vibroseismic techniques that would vibrate the seafloor directly (similar to a technique widely used for onshore oil and gas exploration), rather than via loud explosive sounds from airguns.  

3D seismicWEBAnd, the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management will develop new standards to assure that airgun surveys are not unnecessarily duplicative.  Dozens of surveys take place every year in the Gulf, with repeat surveys sometimes needed to assess reservoir depletion, and as new and improved imaging capabilities are developed; often, survey results are considered proprietary, especially prior to bidding on leases.

3D seismic imagery, above; airguns firing, below.

Airguns firingWEB“Today’s agreement is a landmark for marine mammal protection in the Gulf,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “For years this problem has languished, even as the threat posed by the industry’s widespread, disruptive activity has become clearer and clearer.”

Of particular concern are several populations of whales that are relatively few in number, and thus vulnerable to any disruption—in particular, the Gulf’s small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill. In 2009 an Interior Department study found that Gulf sperm whales subjected to even moderate amounts of airgun noise appeared to lose almost 20 percent of their foraging ability, which may help explain why the population hasn’t recovered from whaling.

International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) President Chip Gill stated, “Under the settlement agreement, permitting of seismic surveys in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico will continue. (The exclusion zones) are all areas where no lease sales are scheduled and where the prospective areas have recently been surveyed using modern surveying technology. . . . Some of the mitigation measures in the settlement agreement are voluntarily employed by industry around the world. Many of the others have been employed by industry in the GOM for the last several years.”

One of the new requirements that may not have been widely used in the Gulf is the employment of listening devices to help identify whales that may be nearby but unseen by observers scanning for surfacing whales.  As with the controversy over Navy noise-making, much of the nitty gritty of the new EIS process will focus on subtle behavioral impacts, and the difficult question of how much such disruption is tolerable while maintaining the health of animal populations.  A recent scoping hearing in Florida, marking the beginning of the long EIS development process in one zone of the Gulf, included some back and forth on this question.

For a full list of the settlement requirements, see this CBD press release.
Previous AEI coverage here and here.

RELATED: Australian environmentalists are upset about seismic surveys OK’d in an area important to blue whales.  According to an article in The Standard, “Government guidelines are clear that seismic surveys should avoid places and time of year when whales are highly likely to be present,” said Michael Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “We can’t think of a clearer example of this than Australia’s largest ever sighting of blue whales. People should view noise pollution the same way they view chemical pollution. The scientific community is slowly waking up to what a problem this is.” Collis said the fear was the giant mammals could be displaced from their feeding grounds, causing unknown repercussions, and knocked back suggestions that environmentalists opposed all off-shore gas mining exploration. “In Australia there are over 300 oil and gas reserves. We are talking about five areas that are special to whales,” Mr Collis said.

 

Floating deepwater wind turbines on track in Maine

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Ocean-based renewables are destined to be a huge piece of a future carbon-free energy system—tidal, wave, and offshore wind are all likely to become more technologically and economically viable over the coming decade or two. As these offshore renewables mature, they will reduce the current pressure to site wind farms in more populated areas closer to urban electricity load centers.

Statoil Hywind Turbine copyWatching the decade-long struggle in Massachusetts to build Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm, researchers and state officials in Maine have chosen a different path: they decided to tackle the engineering challenges of building turbines that can float in deep water far offshore, rather than the social challenges of building wind farms in shallow water close to shore (which use fundamentally the same foundation designs as onshore turbines).  Floating deepwater turbines can take advantage of even stronger, more consistent winds than their nearshore counterparts; along most of the east coast, offshore wind is far more reliable than onshore locations.

After several years of planning, 2013 will see two floating turbine projects in the water off the Maine coast.  A one-eighth scale (57-foot tall) prototype will be tested in a relatively sheltered bay near Castine; the small model must be sited in waves that are proportionately smaller as well, to simulate how a larger unit will do with bigger offshore waves.  Meanwhile, Statoil will be installing 4 3-MW turbines two miles off the coast of Boothbay Harbor; this close-to-shore site will allow for closer monitoring and testing of the units’ durability.  Both projects are aiming toward the eventual construction of large-scale wind farms, likely using 6-8MW turbines, in waters far offshore, though likely not for another decade or so.  The Bangor Daily News puts the big dream in perspective: “to harness the Gulf of Maine’s winds by 2030, placing a full-scale wind farm of about 170 turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument, in the Gulf of Maine. That farm would bring 5 gigawatts, or the equivalent of about five nuclear power plants, of wind energy to Maine’s shore.”

UPDATE, 5/9/13: University of Maine researchers unveiled their 1/8 scale floating turbine foundation.  See article and video here.

UPDATE, 7/12/13: Late-session political maneuvering in the Maine state legislature has led Statoil to put a hold on its plans for floating offshore development in the state.  Governor Paul LaPage, a vocal critic of Statoil’s plans, vetoed an energy bill and in order to move it forward, demanded that an existing contract with Statoil be temporarily shelved to allow the University of Maine to file a bid as well.  LaPage and other fiscal conservatives have objected to the contract approved by the state PUC,  which pays Statoil a higher rate than other Maine electricity sources (the logic being that this small surcharge now will lay the groundwork for a new job base in the state as offshore industrial wind matures over the coming couple of decades).  The Statoil contract approved by the PUC uses up all the state incentives that have been approved for offshore wind in Maine.  It’s unclear whether the UMaine team wants to submit a bid; many see long-term cooperation between Statoil and UMaine researchers as the more fruitful way forward. An ideal scenario may find both projects getting contracts from the PUC, and thus be able to compete for some upcoming federal incentives for offshore wind development. In any case, the bill only holds up the commitment to Statoil for a few months, so the company’s sudden announcement of a hiatus may be more posturing than a fatal blow to Maine’s ambitious offshore vision. Local coverage here, here, and here.

MAJOR UPDATE, 11/7/13:  Since July, Statoil has definitively abandoned its project in Maine, citing political uncertainty that agreements will be upheld, and the University of Maine has released its plan, which aims to develop a 12MW pilot floating turbine project in the next few years, with the long-term goal of 500MW of deep water turbines by 2030, generating power at ten cents or less per kilowatt.  Here’s the latest.

The challenges for floating offshore wind are well-summarized in a recent article from SustainableBusiness.com:

Floating turbines cost less to install than conventional tower-based designs. They can be assembled onshore and then towed out to the installation site, eliminating the expensive and arduous process of building them out in the open ocean. On the flip side, the huge amount of steel needed to make turbines sturdy and heavy enough to withstand rough waves is too expensive. Engineers are working on solutions to get around that, such as intelligent systems that pump ballast water from one tank to the next as a way to stabilize turbines.

One thing that’s clear is the need for specialized turbine blades that can produce energy even as they rock and tilt on ocean waves. All that motion means more wear and tear and can also interfere with power generation. For now, all these designs are performing well, the question is more about which can be produced reliably at the lowest cost.

There has been some local resistance in Maine, especially about the power purchase agreements between Statoil and Central Maine Power for the energy from the pilot project near Boothbay Harbor, for which Maine’s electricity customers will be paying a premium.  State officials maintain that the small extra cost is a worthwhile investment in an offshore wind industry that could pay huge dividends in manufacturing and construction jobs in the years to come.  This is also a long-term investment in an electricity-generating future that can wean us from fossil fuels.  

While Maine’s electricity is already relatively climate-friendly, thanks to significant hydroelectric resources, the development of floating offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine could send lots of clean electricity to Boston and other New England cities.  Onshore wind in the Maine hills faces significant resistance as well, with locals feeling that the price paid by industrializing ridgetops and building new transmission corridors is not worth the modest benefit in green energy for neighboring states; the much smaller impacts of offshore wind may change that cost-benefit equation.   First, though, floating turbines will have to prove themselves durable, and the materials cost must be trimmed.  While that research is underway, offshore wind planners will need to insure that wind farm locations don’t interfere with key fishing habitat.

New NOAA maps offer compelling picture of ocean noise

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, shipping, Sonar No Comments »

NOAA noise mapsIn December, NOAA announced the release of the first large-scale ocean noise maps, which have been in development for the past two years.  The Underwater Sound Field Mapping Working Group modeled many sources of sound occurring within 200 miles of the US coast (including ships, seismic surveys, sonar, pile driving, and oil platform decommissioning), as well as modeling shipping noise in full ocean basins (including the Atlantic, pictured at left).  Data  is compiled in several depths and frequency ranges, to account for the full spectrum of various species’ habitat usage and hearing/vocalization ranges.

Dr. Leila Hatch, co-chair of the Working Group, said too many areas of the ocean surface (where sea mammals and whales spend most of their time) are orange in coloration, denoting high average levels. “It’s like downtown Manhattan during the day, only not taking into account the ambulances and the sirens,” she said. “I’d be happier saying it was like a national park.”

Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Navy to reduce sounds that can harm marine mammals, praised the maps as “magnificent” and their depictions of sound pollution as “incredibly disturbing.”

“We’ve been blind to it,” Mr. Jasny said in an interview. “The maps are enabling scientists, regulators and the public to visualize the problem. Once you see the pictures, the serious risk that ocean noise poses to the very fabric of marine life becomes impossible to ignore.”

NOAA has set up a website where this ongoing work will be made available.  In addition, an 85-page report brings together presentations and recommendations from a two-day symposium held last May, at which the Working Group presented their draft results to a couple hundred other experts from agencies, the Navy, oil and gas industry, academia, and nonprofit groups (I was fortunate to be invited to participate in that meeting).

Equally exciting is a companion project by a Cetacean Density and Distribution Mapping Working Group, also introduced at the May symposium, that is working to compile all known studies of whale and dolphin population distribution.  Tens of thousands of cetacean observations are being compiled into month-by-month distribution charts and maps for various ocean regions around the US.  In addition, seasonally biologically important areas (e.g., for breeding, feeding, or mating) are being compiled as part of this work.

The two mapping projects will provide a robust new foundation for assessing the impacts of noise sources, and hopefully to encourage efforts to reduce human noise, especially in biologically important areas.  A New York Times article introducing the noise mapping project includes encouraging words from Michael Bahtiarian, an adviser to the United States delegation to the International Maritime Organization, which is looking at ways to reduce ship noise and vibrations.  “Right now we’re talking about nonbinding guidelines,” he said  “At a minimum, the goal is to stop the increases.”  See earlier AEInews coverage of the IMO efforts from 2008, 2009, and 2012.

SEE ALSO: Detailed ocean noise maps take this approach further in Puget Sound, BC coastal waters 

WHOI researchers initiate long-term sound study at Cape Wind site

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Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have begun a 2-3 year project that will monitor the soundscape at the Cape Wind site before, during, and after construction of the planned 130 wind turbines.  This is the first time such a long-term acoustic monitoring study has taken place at an offshore wind site.  

“We want to evaluate the importance of this kind of research for future offshore wind farm development, which is a rapidly growing field of interest in the U.S.,” Aran Mooney said. He and his colleagues are outlining a methodology for how acoustic monitoring may occur in other wind farm construction. Mooney said, “That will be valuable for industry, policymakers, and the public.”

Two kinds of acoustic recorders are being used: one records the full range of frequencies continuously for a week at a time; the other samples one minute of sound every ten minutes for 2-3 months, at frequencies up to 40kHz (thus missing echolocation clicks but capturing most other vocalizations of interest). “So we’re making the best of both worlds, putting one device out to get a really in-depth look for one week, and then we continue with the other device to get a sampling period of several months, then we replace both,” Mooney said.

During wind farm construction, pile driving will add significantly to existing human noise in the area; at European wind farm sites, some species tend to move  as far as 20km away during construction.  During operation of the wind farm, noise is not expected to be audible at distances more than a few tens or hundreds of yards, but this study will help to quantify exactly what frequencies are propagating into the waters.

Mooney would like to see the project also contribute to a growing research focus on using sounds to monitor overall environmental health of various habitats.  “Animals make sounds when they attract mates or reproduce, and you can track those activities just by listening,” Mooney said. “What I’d love to do with this project is to look at biological diversity. In a nice healthy habitat, you have a spectrum of sounds: low-frequency sounds of fish, then invertebrates a little bit higher, and then the seals and the dolphins.” The soundscape of an undersea area under an environmental stress would sound different; the impacts could be assessed by listening to what’s missing, for example.

For more on the project, see this page on the WHOI website, which also includes recordings of more than a dozen species of ocean creatures.

Ancient whale song: louder than modern human-caused ocean noise?

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary:
M.S. Stocker, J.T. Reuterdahl. Is the ocean really getting louder? 164th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Oct. 22-26, 2012.  ASA press release

A paper presented at this fall’s Acoustical Society of America meeting has triggered a wave of provocative headlines about how whale-filled oceans of the past may have been “as loud as a rock concert” or how “Noisy whales made FAR MORE oceanic racket than humans do.”  The paper does indeed ask an innovative question: what was the ocean soundscape like in the pre-whaling days?  And its answer, while couched in a high degree of uncertainty, is also eye and ear-opening: ten times as many whales made a lot more noise than today’s diminished populations, perhaps adding up to overall noise levels that match those caused by today’s shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other human activities in the seas.

It’s probably a bit too acoustics-geeky for me to object to the “rock concert” comparison, but for the record, the paper itself never uses those two words alone or together!  (Though somehow the phrase slipped into the ASA press release; we’ll have to blame the editor or an author’s pre-conference sleep deprivation for the slip…)  In fact, thanks to their differences in density, measurements of sound in water are about 62dB higher than a similar sound level in air; thus, the mention of 126dB of whale sounds filling the ancient oceans would not be equivalent to a rock concert, but more like the 64dB sounds of laughter or a loud conversation.  Which, as it turns out, much better captures the essence of the historic soundscape as described by the authors:

The bio-acoustic environment of the pre-industrial whaling ocean could be correlated to the animal sounds in any biologically diverse and well populated habitat wherein the riot of birdcalls, the stridulation of insects, and the mammal vocalizations are the dominant noise contributors to the soundscape.

The question of ancient ocean sound levels is relevant because much of today’s thinking about the impact of human noise is predicated on research that shows global shipping increasing the ambient noise levels in the oceans by 10dB or more since the 1950’s.  This just happens to be the era in which whale populations were at their nadir, with several species having already become rare enough that it was no longer worth the effort to find and hunt them.  But as the authors stress in their conclusion, an ancient ocean full of whale song — along with the more widespread  sounds of the onomatopoeia-ic large fish, Grunts and Drums, or the “great schools of tuna miles across (that) would churn up the sea surface for days as they migrated past California’s Channel Islands” noted by early 20th century fishermen, which the authors note “would likely be as loud as or louder than even the most tempestuous sea state” — is a very different place than an ocean full of the noise of ship engines and airgun reverberations.

Animals have evolved to fill distinct acoustic niches, with their songs and calls at different frequencies, made at different times or the day or year, and using distinct rhythmic pulses; each species’ hearing is especially tuned, or filtered, to pick out the calls of its own species from the voices of others.  But, as the authors note, “the signature of mechanized ocean noise interference from shipping is broad-band, pervasive, and chronic, and more likely to mask across animal frequency and/or time domain filters throughout large areas of the ocean.”

Or as put so well by Tim Baribeau, it’s important to remember that “we could still be disorienting whales with our bizarre and intrusive industrial sounds. But it’s incredible to think that the oceans may once have been filled with a cacophonous background chatter of animal noise.”

German offshore wind construction aims to limit noise impact on porpoises

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Aggressive offshore wind energy plans in Germany are pioneering innovative new approaches to reducing the noise impacts of wind turbine construction, according to a recent Bloomberg News article.  It’s a good, long piece, well worth a read.  A few highlights:

“Quite a large proportion of our sea area will probably be used for offshore wind farms,” said Hans-Ulrich Rosner, head of the Wadden Sea Office for WWF in Germany. “This will have a serious impact on nature, which needs to be mitigated.”  Harbor porpoises, common in the North and Baltic Seas, appear to be especially sensitive to noise, adding to the challenges. 

Construction of the 108 MW Riffgat offshore wind project is nearing completion; it’s been utilizing a double-walled, water-filled casing in which bubbles are produced to absorb some of the sound from pile-driving of the turbine foundations into the seabed.  In addition, a less intense vibration method is being used for almost half the depth of the piles, with the louder hammering of classic pile driving being used for only the last 40 meters.  These noise reduction techniques amount to half of one percent of the total cost of the wind farm.

Germany’s Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, or BSH, has set a noise limit of 160 decibels for 750 metres around offshore wind construction work. Developers regularly overshoot the limit, which is not applied to detonating old bombs, the BSH’s Christian Dahlke said.  “Our regulations are creating a new industry,” Dahlke said. “If environmental rules to protect animal life are tightened in other countries as well, our companies may even export these technologies.”

At the Nordsee Ost project, a large hose perforated to produce a curtain of air bubbles around each of the 48 turbine foundations to absorb the noise from pile driving, which “brought the noise level much closer” to the 160 decibel cap.  But RWE, a utility involved in the project, said that more research and development is needed “to meet the limit reliably in the future.”

Japan commits to floating offshore wind

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In order to compensate for the abandonment of many nuclear plants, the Japanese government has set its sights on the abundant wind resources off its coast.  A 15MW pilot floating wind turbine project is under construction not far from Fukushima; if all goes well, the project could expand to as large as 1000MW.  Along with smaller pilot projects in Norway and Maine, the Japanese effort will be a key player in moving floating offshore wind forward.

Currently, capital expenditure is about $1.7 million a megawatt for an onshore wind project and $5.5 million a megawatt for offshore, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance; floating offshore designs are still under development, raising initial costs even higher.  Over time, though, the cost is expected to come down enough to support widespread deep water floating wind farms; a feed-in tariff program promoting clean energy allows projects to receive higher-than-market rates as the sector develops.  Floating turbine designs are larger than onshore turbines, and can take advantage of stronger, steadier winds; foundation systems for floating turbines are much smaller than bottom-mounted near-shore foundations, minimizing impacts on the seabed and reducing the noise impact of construction.

Offshore wind farm pile driving raises hackles in UK

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PiledrivingConstruction of a wind farm a bit over a mile from shore near Redcar, on the northeast coast of England, has raised the hackles of local residents. At issue is the unexpectedly loud sound of pile-driving at the site; construction of the turbine foundations entails the construction of foundations that extend 32 m (about a hundred feet) into the seabed, according to this summary of its EIS.

This local news report quotes many local residents who were shocked at the intensity of the repeated pulses of noise from the pile-driving:

Newcomen ward councillor Chris Abbott said: “One resident described it as sounding like someone was standing in their back garden, banging a drum continuously.” Neil Short, a 40-year-old depot sales manager of Coatham Road, said: “The noise echoed through the house. I’d been at work since 4.30am so to come home to listen to that wasn’t good.”

The construction site is in about 20m/60ft of water; it’s not clear if the sound is propagating out of the water and through the air, or along the seafloor and out into the air as it reaches shore. Of course, these construction noises will be relatively temporary. A spokesman for EDF Energy Renewables said that they are monitoring sound levels and are within permitted limits; he also noted that “to help minimize potential longer term disruption,” they’ll be reducing the installation period, so may need to work at night, which is part of what triggered so many complaints.  (Ed. note: reducing the time needed to hire the pile-driving platform, pictured above, is undoubtedly also a budgetary decision by the company.)

UK researchers examine effects of noise on fish, crustaceans

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science 2 Comments »

A research project in England is preparing to do some of the first field studies designed to see how human-made sound may affect non-cetaceans.  While many field studies have tracked the responses of whales and dolphins in both opportunistic and controlled settings, and some lab studies have noted how fish or other sea creatures react to noise when introduced into tanks, a team from the University of Hull is preparing to project human sounds from a research vessel and see how fish and crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) respond.

The researchers plan to film animals while playing the sounds of ships, concrete pile driving, or operating wind turbines; the results will provide data for far more accurate environmental impact assessments of offshore construction and renewable energy projects.

For more, see this recent article from OffshoreWind.

Assessing the noise impact of a wave energy installation

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Ireland Wave EnergyWEB

IBM is collaborating with The Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland to measure the noise output from a wave energy installation of the west coast of Ireland, which is one of the world’s most promising areas for wave power development.  The acoustic data will be collected in real-time, and will will produce one of the largest continuous collections of underwater acoustic data ever captured. This data will be made available to marine researchers and regulatory agencies to further advance knowledge of natural and man-made underwater sound, and help develop standards and reporting, benefitting marine environmental agencies as well as industries including renewable energy, shipping, and offshore oil and gas.

“Underwater noise is a global environmental issue that has to be addressed if we are to take advantage of the huge potential of ocean energy,” said European Union Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  “This project is a great example of collaboration among global companies, industry experts and government agencies, and will help us make real progress toward practical and sustainable ocean energy systems.  I’m delighted to see Ireland playing a lead role in this area, which has great importance for meeting the EU’s energy challenges.”