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NRDC, allies take Navy to court over training range near right whale habitat

News, Ocean, Science, Sonar 3 Comments »

The new Navy Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), being planned for off the coast of northern Florida, has hit a roadblock that’s been fairly visible since the location was announced last July: environmental groups are challenging the permitting process that allows construction to commence before the Navy completes its environmental assessment of future operations there.  The USWTR will encompass 500 square miles, beginning 50 miles offshore, while a key winter birthing and nursing ground for North Atlantic right whales extends out to 20 miles offshore.

UPDATE, 10/2013: Court sides with Navy, USWTR plans continue forward

While the Navy released its final EIS in July (see AEI summary), including its proposed operational and mitigation measures to protect whales, it became clear soon after that the Navy was only applying for permits from NOAA related to construction activities; the Navy said it would apply for permits to allow actual Navy training activities in 2012 or 2013, in advance of planned opening of the range in 2014. (Update, 2015: the USWTR website now estimates that operations will commence in 2019; no operations permits filed yet.) The EIS indicates that the range will be heavily used:  up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each).

From the start, NRDC and other environmental groups questioned the Navy’s legal standing to commit to $100 million in construction costs before receiving National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permits that would approve their plans for operations, including safety measures to protect marine life.  The new lawsuit alleges Read the rest of this entry »

Soundtracker Gordon Hempton video and interview

Arts, Bioacoustics No Comments »

Gordon Hempton, aka The Soundtracker, is featured on the Newsweek website this week.  Gordon shares his well-crafted gospel of quiet in both an interview and a very nice little video produced by Newsweek (there will be a pause after you click the play button, during which you will see a blank screen, rather than the commercial viewed at the Newsweek site):

Oregon wind farm noise analysis finds limits exceeded

Human impacts, Wind turbines 2 Comments »

Two different acoustic studies near the Willow Creek Energy Center in eastern Oregon have found that the state’s wind farm noise ordinance is being violated at several homes nearby.  How often and by how much the violations are occurring remains under contention. As reported by the East Oregonian, the commission heard from several acousticians as well as the neighbors themselves.

The state allows wind farms to be up to 36dB at neighboring homes (10dB over the night-time ambient of 26dB–based on the assumption that excess noise will not be bothersome until it exceeds ambient by 10dB).  After several neighbors raised concerns about noise, Invenergy, the wind farm developer, hired acoustical consultant Michael Theriault to take measurements.  He found that noise levels at three homes were “usually less than 37db” and that at one home, “the noise ‘moderately’ exceeded the noise code about ten percent of the time.” (it is unclear what “usually” means in this report, or what averaging period was used in the determination)

However, the Theriault did no recordings when wind speeds exceeded 9m/s, because the company says their turbines don’t get louder after that point.  This may well be true, but sound propagation can vary widely with atmospheric conditions, especially when wind is higher aloft (at turbine hub height) than on the ground.  Acoustical consultants hired by the four landowners presented findings that included measurements when wind speeds were higher, which showed that the noise at the Eaton’s residence hovered just above the noise standard on a regular basis, and at the Williams residence it regularly went above 40 decibels. The wind farm consistently broke the noise rule at precisely the time when Theriault decided not to use the data – when wind speeds exceeded 9 meters per second. When the data is analyzed in a wider range of wind speeds,  the wind farm was in violation of the rule 22 out of 37 nights. “I’m not sure how someone can say this is an unusual, infrequent event,” said Kerrie Standlee. “To me, 59 percent is not occasional or unusual.” Standlee’s noise study also went beyond Theriault’s in that he gave the residents a sheet of paper to log their experiences with time and date. He then overlaid those comments on the data and showed that when the residents reported high noise, the wind was blowing from a particular direction or at a particular speed.

The commission also heard heartfelt testimony from the residents themselves, who said that their lives had been completely changed since the wind farm came. “A basic right in my life is to live in my beautiful home with my peace and quiet, and now I can’t do that,” Dan Williams said. When the testimony ended, the planning commission agreed to wait until their next meeting to make a decision about whether – and how – the Willow Creek wind farm must mitigate the noise problem.  An earlier article focusing on the experiences of people near the wind farm is available here.

NOAA steps up, announces new active sonar oversight with possible off-limits areas

News, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar 2 Comments »

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has announced a series of sweeping new initiatives designed to push the Navy forward in its efforts to understand and mitigate the impacts of mid-frequency active sonar on marine mammals.  In response to a request from the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), which asked NOAA to conduct a comprehensive review of this controversial issue, Lubchenco outlined several important new initiatives which mark a more active role for NOAA in moving both the science and policy efforts forward.  Previously, NOAA had worked closely with the Navy on its Environmental Impact Statements, but had largely rubber-stamped the resultant Navy mitigation plans, which consistently rejected any alternatives that set biologically important portions of US coastal zones off-limits to sonar training.

The new NOAA initiatives include four key elements, three of which dovetail closely with long-time concerns and requests from environmental organizations for NOAA to more actively protect areas of biological significance from both Navy and oil and gas noise, and three of which will help fill key data gaps identified by research scientists over the past decade.

  • First, NOAA will work with other civilian agencies (e.g., MMS) to reinitiate comprehensive aerial cetacean and sea turtle surveys, in order to establish more fine-scale population estimates, especially in Navy training ranges.  Currently, many Navy EISs rely on coarse, regional population estimates, leading to unrealistic estimations of population density being spread evenly across large areas.
  • Second, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will host a workshop aimed at developing a plan to create a comprehensive “ocean noise budget.”  This is a long-time desire of both researchers and environmentalists, and would identify areas in the ocean where human noise is relatively sparse, as well as areas in which new human activity would not add substantially to already high noise levels.
  • Third, another NMFS workshop will be organized to identify marine mammal “hot spots” of particular biological significance.  All three of these initiatives tie together nicely to bring acoustics into the Obama administration’s stated aim of moving toward more coherent Marine Spatial Planning, a sort of ocean zoning approach that would help guide human activities toward areas where they will have less impact on animals.  In a clear indication that NOAA may take a more proactive role in pushing the Navy to leave some areas out of its training zones, the letter stresses that “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”
  • Finally, NOAA has already begun taking an active role in ongoing meetings between the Navy and the National Resources Defense Council; these meetings were part of a legal settlement and are designed to resolve outstanding differences about Navy active sonar operational and mitigation measures.  Lubchenco notes that “NOAA’s participation will enhance these discussions and help resolve differing views….I also expect the Navy to be open to new ideas and approaches to mitigation that are supported by the best available science.”

Indeed, including “spatio-temporal restrictions” (areas or times when activity is prohibited) in active sonar permitting has been a major sticking point between the Navy and NRDC and other environmentalists, and is something the Navy has consistently and explicitly rejected in the first round of sonar EISs, which have been finalized over the past year for most of the key Navy ranges (California, Hawaii, East Coast and just this week, the Gulf of Mexico), none of which included any limits on where and when the Navy could do sonar training. “The Navy’s Southern California range is over 120,000 nautical miles in size — about the size of California itself,” NRDC’s Michael Jasny points out. “The Bush administration did not put a square mile of this vast area off limits to sonar.”

All in all, this is a remarkable and very productive first step for this administration as it enters the long-contentious waters of active sonar regulation, ocean noise in general.  You can download Lubchenco’s detailed letter at the NOAA website.

Electric cars trigger new sound design concepts

Human impacts, News, Vehicles 1 Comment »

In the best overview I’ve yet seen of efforts to solve the “problem” of electric cars being so quiet, the New York Times Wheels blog provides a tour of the the apparently burgeoning of field sound design for these future (and increasingly, present-day) vehicles.  Most designs plan to incorporate sounds that will alert nearby pedestrians of a car nearby, but will only emit sound when the car is slow-moving (above 12 or 15 mph, tire noise will be sufficient).

A speaker embedded in the bumper of a Fisker Karma (click to link to blog post)

A speaker embedded in the bumper of a Fisker Karma (click to read NY Times blog post)

Among the key questions is whether electric car owners will be able to customize their car’s “voice,” ala cell phone ring tones, or if they should be standardized.  So far, individual auto companies are each pursuing their own standard sounds, which could presumably become part of the “look and feel” of the car’s branding.  A Nissan engineer quoted in a September article from Bloomberg,  says that “we decided that if we’re going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic.” The company decided on a high- pitched sound reminiscent of the flying cars in “Blade Runner,” the 1982 Ridley Scott film. “We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” said the Nissan designer.  At least one acoustic design company has turned its attention to becoming the “go to” company for automakers facing this 21st century problem.  The Times blog and its accompanying article are both great reads on this fascinating – and for some anti-noise activists, frustrating – topic.

Japanese Environment Ministry to begin nationwide survey of health effects near wind farms

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

The Japanese Environment Ministry is gearing up for the April launch of a nationwide field survey around all 1500 wind turbines in operation in the country.  Prompted by health complaints by some neighbors, the survey will the first such comprehensive study of the question; low frequency and audible noise will be recorded, to see whether there is any correlation between these sounds and the reported effects.  According to the ministry plan, the survey will first ascertain whether there have been problems reported in the vicinity of wind turbines. If residents complain of health problems, their symptoms will be examined. Measuring equipment will be placed in their homes to find out the relationship between the turbines and health problems. The distance between the turbines and homes as well as geographical features of the area will also be examined. About 30 of the nation’s 376 wind farms (1-20 turbines each) have prompted formal complaints to date.  For more, see this Japanese news report.

Norwegian company releases first quieting standards for commercial ships

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

This good news is courtesy of Brandon Southall’s SEAblog:

DNV, a Norwegian-based company that develops classification-specific standards for the construction of vessels, has released the first industry standard for reducing underwater noise for commercial vessels.  While not targetted at the largest cargo ships and tankers necessarily, this is a notable development within the commercial shipping industry regarding noise impacts on marine life.  A press release from DNV, which notes the ongoing effort within the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee on this issue, may be found at: http://www.dnv.com/news_events/news/2009/dnvsilentnotationmakessomenoise.asp

I’d just add that the company’s press release notes that DNV “will offer sound radiation evaluation services and recommendations on hull, propulsion and engine design to reduce noise.”

Ontario assessment board cuts house value in half due to nearby wind farm transformer noise

Human impacts, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

In what could be a precedent-setting move, the Ontario Assessment Review Board (ARB) has slashed the taxable value of a house because of noise from a transformer station across the street.  The transformer, which site 360 meters (about 1200 feet) from Paul Thompson’s home, produces a constant hum of about 40dB in Thompson’s home.  In 2008, the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. assessed the 1,320-square-foot house at $255,000; Thompson felt that assessment may be fair if not for the noise from the recently-installed substation, and appealed.  According to an article in the Home section of the Toronto Star, Thompson introduced evidence at the hearing showing that the transformer station noise was audible within the house with the windows closed. He described the noise as a “nightmare” and a constant nuisance that not only affects his day-to-day activity, but also impacts the sales value and marketability of his property. In reaching its decision to cut his assessment in half, board member Marques wrote, “The Board finds that the constant hum alleged by Mr. Thompson does exist and significantly reduces the current value of the subject property. The best evidence is the audio portion of the CD (Exhibit No. 1) and the testimony of both parties. “Having heard this nuisance, apparently sanctioned by the Municipality, the Board accepts Mr. Thompson’s testimony that the stigma of noise contamination has a negative impact on the value and marketability of the property, and that after learning of the hum, prospective purchasers will quickly lose interest in purchasing the property. The Board is satisfied that a very substantial reduction is warranted.”

It is especially interesting that the ARB felt that Thompson’s home value was so dramatically affected by sound of 40dB; many municipalities c0nsider this and higher levels to be acceptable.  Wind turbine noise, while varying widely with wind conditions, can be 45dB or higher at similar distances (1000-1500 feet), and remain above 35dB for up to a mile.  As Bob Aaron, a real estate lawyer and author of this article, notes: “Thompson’s successful appeal of his assessment is only the first of many similar cases that are certain to follow. The result, of course, will be a significant reduction in the tax base of municipalities like Amaranth, which play host to wind turbine farms.”  This hearing took place in September 2008, but only recently came to light.  Bob Aaron has posted the ARB decision on his website.

Breakthrough technique measures how much ocean noise reduces whales’ communication area

Animal Communication, Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, shipping 3 Comments »

I’ve just finished reading what must be the most exciting research paper I’ve seen this year, barely nudging out a similar paper addressing terrestrial noise impacts. A small group of researchers, with Chris Clark of Cornell as the lead author, took a giant step forward in addressing the impacts of ocean noise on the communication ranges of whales.  They came up with a clear and strikingly rigorous set of new metrics that will allow researchers and ocean planners to have a much more practical picture of how numerous noise sources combine to create cumulative impacts on acoustic habitat.  The new approach centers on the “Communication Space” of individual animals, as well as groups, and provides an intuitively obvious way to both imagine and assess the effects of ocean noise – measuring the area in which an animal can hear or be heard by others of its species.

My formal “lay summary” of this paper is reprinted in full below the fold, and I encourage anyone with a deep interest in ocean noise to read through that five-paragraph overview, or to download the paper yourself.  The key takeaway for those of you with a more casual interest in these issues is that in the test case that they used to illustrate their new approach, the researchers found that shipping noise has dramatically different impacts on different species, even though all three species they studied are low-frequency communicators.  In the area off Boston Harbor that they investigated, the critically endangered right whale is by far the most affected by shipping noise: on a day when two ships passed through the area (the average is often six), right whale Communication Space was reduced by an average of 84% over the course of the day, with several hours in which they could hear and be heard in an area less then 10% of that which would be expected without shipping nearby. Since right whales call back and forth to find each other as they form groups for feeding, this is truly worrying (though the key question of how a reduced communication range actually affects animals remains unanswered).  Fin whales and humpbacks were far less dramatically affected, with their Communication Spaces reduced by just 33% and 11% respectively.

These first examples focus on the effects of low-frequency shipping noise on low-frequency communication by large whales, but this approach can easily be used to address mid- or high-frequency noise sources (sonars, airguns) and higher frequency animal sounds such as those used for echolocation, opening a vast and exceedingly useful new doorway for biologists and ocean managers, as well as the general public, to appreciate the impacts of human sounds in the sea.   (click through for complete lay summary)

Read the rest of this entry »

Feds looking for ways to assess effects of offshore wind turbines on defense radars

Wind turbines No Comments »

While offshore wind, especially floating deep offshore designs just beginning to be tested, offers great promise for reliable electrical generation out of earshot of communities, there remain several key technical hurdles to overcome.  In addition to needing more ships that can transport and install offshore turbines and vastly expanded transmission lines, a key concern is that wind turbines can interfere with radar signals, raising concerns about national defense implications of widespread offshore wind development.  The Department of Homeland Security and the NOAA are soliciting proposals for new techniques that could be used to accurately assess the extent and degree of radar interference by offshore wind farms.  The proposal affirms that the “intent is not to impede the propagation of wind turbines but to discover a means to co-exist.”

In search of a silent night

Human impacts, News No Comments »

This recent article in the London Times is a great read for those of us interested in natural quiet and the effects of humans sounds on people.  Helen Rumbelow was sent on a seasonal assignment by her editor: find a place in the England where one might experience a “silent night.”  She travels to places recommended on the official UK Noise Map, visits researchers, and reflects on her own quest to find quiet.  It written in a light, amusing tone and well worth a read.  Among the more sober point made by those she visited:

  • Deepak Prasher, Emeritus Professor of Audiology at University College London, a world expert on noise nuisance and health, reminds us that ” if noise is continuous it places great stress on the body. People think they adapt but actually all that happens is they get used to the idea of living within noise. Their body doesn’t get used to it…We need to have an awareness that noise isn’t good for us. We have acknowledged it for air pollution but noise pollution goes together with that.”
  • Professor Jian Kang of Sheffield University notes that among visitors to the Sheffield Peace Garden, those with a university education found it noisier than those without, a point that is part of a larger trend: “Reducing noise gets more important as affluence increases,” says Kang. “Many years ago, noise was regarded as a sign of development and was therefore tolerated as something from which we all benefited.” In countries that are still growing apace, such as Kang’s native China, they are still as tolerant of mechanical noise as we were in the 1960s. But in the West, our sense of beneficial connection to such noise has been broken.