May 26 2009
Two UK environmental and research organizations that were monitoring whale activity during a recent NATO naval exercise report that minke whales were seen fleeing along the surface while their hydrophones were picking up loud mid-frequency active sonar signals. Observers from the Hebrides Whale and Dolphin Trust saw “two minke whales within an hour displaying unusual and worrying behaviour. At the same time they heard military sonar on the hydrophone – sometimes so loud that they could not keep the headphones on. The whales were both moving in the same direction at high speed, regularly leaping clear of the water. This behaviour, known as ‘porpoising’, is more typical of dolphins and rarely seen in undisturbed whales.”
Porpoising minke whale. Credit: HWDT
Nienke van Geel, HWDT’s Biodiversity Officer said “Seeing minke whales porpoising many times successively is very unusual. Both whales moved very fast, too fast for us to keep up with them to try to take identification pictures. We estimated they were traveling at least at 15 knots. Our research has already shown a decline in minke whale sightings in the last few years, so we’re worried about anything that might adversely affect the population.” The incident is reported on in three posts from the HWDT’s colleagues, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). The first includes the initial report of the incident, the second details the situation more fully and stresses the need for the UK Navy to conduct fully environmental assessments as the US Navy has begun to do at home, and the third clarifies that the US Navy should be, according the the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, applying for permits for sonar activities in UK waters, though it currently only does so for training in US waters.
May 26 2009
After my participation on a Canadian government expert group looking at offshore oil and gas noise, I headed west to Banff for my second appearance as a plenary speaker at the Alberta oil and gas industry’s biannual Spring Noise Conference. Here, participants are largely agency staff and noise control contractors, with a few oil and gas companies participating as well. Alberta has a vibrant oil and gas industry (read: most important economic driver for the Province), and while the landscape is heavily tapped by traditional oil and natural gas drilling, coalbed methane development, surface coal mining, and, infamously, oil sands development, Alberta’s noise regulations are among the most stringent in the world: impact on neighbors cannot exceed 5dB above the local ambient noise conditions. This year’s conference (and the very informative pre-conference workshop I attended) expanded from its roots in oil and gas development, to include wind farms.
Read the rest of this entry »
May 26 2009
On May 12 and 13, I was invited to be part of a Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat workshop that was called by the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian sister agency to NOAA) to assess the Canadian government’s mitigation measures to protect marine mammals from noise impacts of seismic surveys used to explore for offshore oil and gas. Thanks to my previous involvement in the Ocean Noise Coalition, a Canadian ONC member recommended that I be invited—thanks, Kathy! Longtime ONC colleague Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research was also there, and we shared some nice rambles around the city. The two-day workshop included a day of “working papers” in which various participants shared research and information meant to inform our assessment of how well marine mammal observers, safety zones, and passive acoustic monitoring perform in their goals of protecting marine mammals from the effects of seismic survey noise. Most of the 40+ participants work for agencies, oil and gas companies or trade groups, or for environmental consultants who write EISs or manage marine mammal observing operations for seismic survey companies. Four of us were from the “environmental community,” and of those, I was the only one to present a working paper.
My paper was the sole piece of the workshop that addressed impacts beyond the 500m exclusion (or safety) zone, meant to protect animals from injury; Read the rest of this entry »
May 14 2009
The revised draft of wind energy wildlife impact guidelines released by a US Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Advisory Committee was released in March, and like the first version, contains not a single occurrence of the words “noise” or “acoustic.” The Committee is directed to “recommend effective measures to avoid or minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitats related to land-based wind energy facilities.” How they can provide provide this guidance without considering acoustic impacts is simply unimaginable. Modern wind turbines are hundreds of feet tall, and create significant sound; even the minimal setbacks for human residences are 1000 feet, with many cases of bothersome noise (especially at night) at a half mile or more. Wildlife impacts of wind farms are sure to include increased ambient background noise over a fairly large area (half mile to a mile in diameter), which can make it more difficult for predators such as owls and coyotes to find their small prey, and likewise force prey animals to be more vigilant against attack, which has clear energy costs for the animals. In addition, low-frequency noise radiated into the ground could affect burrowing animals. Especially in “islands” of woods along ridgelines surrounded by farm land, this acoustic degradation could displace animals from key habitat; even in larger woodlands, steep terrain along ridgelines often contains a different mix of trees and thus habitat that is locally important. As AEI noted in comments submitted to committee members in February, “In at least some situations/locations, acoustic impacts could be a primary or substantial contributing factor in displacement from habitat, as well as triggering stress that may have synergistic relationships with other impacts.” Such considerations are basic requirements for effective analysis of impacts on wildlife. The Committee briefly considered noise impacts, but concluded that no data (specifically involving turbine noise) was available with which to assess the possible effects. As with ocean noise, though, this lack of specific data does not preclude assessing possible or likely impacts, using studies of other noise sources or even other species than those present at a given project area; NOAA and the Navy routinely take this approach to assessing the impacts of various ocean noise sources. There is plenty of research on the noise impacts of oil and gas installations, road noise, and aircraft noise on many families of wildlife (birds, rodents, large mammals, etc.). The National Park Service Natural Sounds office and bioacoustics researchers at universities across the country are good sources of information that this Federal Advisory Committee surely needs to consult before moving forward with guidelines for assessing the impacts of wind farms on wildlife. These guidelines will shape wildlife impact analyses for years to come, and need to be done right.
For more on the FWS wind advisory committee, see:
Industrial Wind Action Group letter to Sec. of Interior Salazar, May 2009
Advisory Committee website
May 14 2009
Debate continues to swirl around wind farm development across the US, as local communities struggle to find the right balance between green energy and minimizing impacts on wind farm neighbors. At the crux of the issue is how close to homes turbines should be built. The wind energy continues to push for setbacks as small as 1000 feet, while local residents report significant noise impacts up to a half mile or mile. In Wisconsin, where five wind farm proposals have been derailed since 2007 by local setback ordinances of 1800 feet to a mile, which the industry deemed too severe, a push is on in the state legislature to transfer all decision-making power to state authorities, stripping localities of regulatory authority. In Maine, two physicians have urged the state to take note of clear health effects caused by audible noise from the Mars Hill windfarm: Read the rest of this entry »
May 01 2009
The Minerals Management Service suffered a major defeat this week, as a Federal Appeals Court ruled that its current five-year leasing program plans for Alaskan waters be vacated and remanded to the Department of Interior for more substantial environmental analysis. The program includes oil and gas leasing from 2007-2012 on the Outer Continental Shelf; only one lease has been offered in Alaskan waters, though more are in the planning stages. MMS did produce a 1600 page environmental assessment, but the court found it lacking. Among the primary considerations cited by the court was inadequate analysis of the effects of exploration and drilling noise on migrating Bowhead whales, and similarly inadequate assessment of effects on fish. Kim Elton, director of Alaska Affairs for the Department of the Interior, said his office is still studying the ruling. Though industry officials and some Republicans in the US Congress have called for a quick approval of further offshore development, Elton said the latest ruling should convince people that rushing to formulate land-use policies leave them open to challenge in court and not make hurried assumptions based on the work of the previous administration. “We too often end up doing things in a rushed way without recognising the fact that the paradigm is likely to be challenged,” he said. “And if we don’t do our upfront work we allow a group of people wearing black robes or a person wearing a black robe to set policy.”
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