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New hospital noise guidelines will lead to quieter care

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A topic that’s been a recurring tangent for AEI over the years has been excessive noise in hospitals; it’s always surprised us that places theoretically designed for healing and recuperation would be so full of noisy machines and reverberant hallways.  Well, that is about to change: New design and construction guidelines from the Facilities Guidelines Institute,  published in conjunction with the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE) of the American Hospital Association (AHA), include new standards for quieting hospitals, and are fast being adopted by state building codes.  The new guidelines are the culmination of over five years of collaborative work by researchers, architects, engineers, and acoustical consultants to solve the problems of speech privacy and excessive noise in hospitals; the guidelines apply to new construction, so may not change the experience in existing facilities.

Read all about it at the excellent Acoustics by Design blog!

Bark beetle sounds can disrupt new beetles attacking pines

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In the most promising development yet in using acoustics to deal with the spread of bark beetles in the American and Canadian west, researchers at Northern Arizona University have found that some beetles can be disrupted by playback of other beetle sounds. The tiny insects make squeaking noises as they tunnel through trees; the researchers have been manipulating the beetle sounds, which are above human hearing, and playing them back to the insects. The results drive them buggy: They attack each other, scamper in circles rather than straight lines and have tried to gnaw their way through Plexiglas covering a cross section of a tree in a lab in Flagstaff, Ariz.

A great article in The Missoulan included these tidbits from NAU researchers Richard Hofstetter and Reagan McGuire, Skye Stephens, an entomologist with the Colorado State Forest Service, and David Dunn, a sound artist who discovered and first recorded the beetle sounds:

“One of the questions is if we could effectively remove them from a particular tree or set of trees, where do they go, what happens to them?” Stephens said. “I’m very excited to see what happens next” with the research. Hofstetter and McGuire are eager to run tests on the ground to answer questions like that. Working with Dunn, they have applied for a patent on a device that pumps in noise to throw off the beetles’ destructive course. Hofstetter said the sounds are at a frequency that shouldn’t bother other species. The work has been a side project for the professor, who has struggled to scrape together funding for the research. McGuire is volunteering his time. “We’re hoping it’s going to lead to a whole new field,” Hofstetter said.

David Dunn, who has traveled the world collecting sounds of nature for his compositions, first started recording the inner life of trees in 2004. He took the kind of small microphone used in greeting cards to record and play, fastened it to a recycled meat thermometer and inserted it into the tree. While concerned about the dying trees and what they signal about climate change, Dunn has become intrigued by the beetles, “an absolutely fascinating form of life. I fell in love with them,” Dunn said. “But then we’re watching them cannibalize each other. I always think, ‘How bad is this karma?’

“But if something really positive about forest health comes of it, perhaps it’s worth the price.”

Dunn’s CD, The Sound of Light in Trees, was released by EarthEar; 100% of all sales revenues are donated by Dunn and EarthEar to support the Acoustic Ecology Institute.  See more on the CD and beetle project on AEI’s website.

Ontario wind tech and health research chair named–background is solid in tech, weak on health

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Electrical engineer Siva Sivoththaman has been named to the newly-created Ontario provincial Research Chair in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health.  Local activist groups that have raised concerns about the effects of wind farm noise on neighbors had hoped that this position, created as part of Ontario’s new Green Energy Act, would take the lead in formally investigating the negative health effects some neighbors of wind farms have reported.  However, the choice appears to be more oriented toward the technology aspect of the Chair’s responsibilities.  As noted in the request for proposals: “The Chair in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health will focus first on emerging science and technology related to wind turbines, and then will explore the potential health effects from renewable energy.”

According to a news release, “Dr. Sivoththaman will bring focus to multi-disciplinary activities in renewable energy technologies and health, ensuring that health and safety are top priorities in the induction of new technologies. His research program will develop new technical approaches and will provide guidelines in setting standards to ensure health and safety in the manufacturing, use, and end-of-life phases of renewable energy technologies.” Sivoththaman’s research centres on silicon-based crystalline and thin-film photovoltaic devices, and he serves as director of the Centre for Photovoltaic Systems and Devices, which occupies much of the photovoltaic research building beside Matthews Hall. His interest extends to nanocrystalline semiconductors, and he was the first director of the University of Waterloo’s nanotechnology engineering program when it was launched in 2004.

Two leading Ontario wind activist groups expressed their disappointment with the choice; Wind Concerns Ontario said “We have no faith in any meaningful body of evidence being produced on health effects from wind turbines by this government-funded non expert and Ontarians will suffer for it,” while the Society for Wind Vigilance chair Dr. Robert McMurtry said the choice missed the mark in that “the lead and expertise of this Research Chair would more appropriately have been a clinician scientist. We strongly encourage the new Chair to seek the appropriate collaborators as the research program is established.”

It is as yet unclear what the Chair’s timeline will be in addressing the dual (and quite distinct) topics he is charged with overseeing.  Given the widespread concern about health effects, and the role this concern is playing in the wind development process in Ontario and elsewhere, we hope that the two topics will be pursued simultaneously.  And indeed, as McMurtry suggests, it is clear that the Chair will need to bring in some experts in health and acoustics to effectively address the health aspects; in the spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness, we can also hope that his research/investigative team draws from qualified experts who have expressed concerns about wind noise, as well as those who have previously worked on reports that found few health effects.

New maps track ships drowning out whale communication

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Ongoing research in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is providing ever more compelling visualizations of shipping noise and the much quieter calls of whales in the area. Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NMFS, and Cornell have deployed networks of sound recorders, which allow them to track individual whales and ships and see how their sounds interact.  The Sanctuary, which contains the shipping lanes into Boston harbor, is one of the more urbanized ocean environments to be closely studied thus far.  Here, we see four panels; the top left is wind noise, bottom left is right whales, and the right hand ones show that two ships completely drown out the whales as they pass through the area. “Every day, five to six large ships move into and out of Boston, and their acoustic footprint can last for hours.” says Cornell’s Chris Clark. “As a result, the Right whales trying to make a living off Boston are losing about 80 percent of their opportunities to keep in contact every day, day after day, month after month, year after year.”

From Sciencemag.com; click to read source article

From Sciencemag.com; click to read source article

“Right whales are long-lived animals. When they were kids and teenagers, their world was normal,” Clark says. “Acoustic habitat loss is a stressor and there are multiple stressors on a species.” His team has found that the whales often no longer bother answering calls from their peers. In this world of constant noise, they wouldn’t be heard anyway. “Their social network is constantly ripped apart,” says Clark. “In one area, noise levels are now 105 decibel where they should be 75.” Other researchers from the Right Whale Consortium found that the animals show dramatic loss in vital body fat: In some individuals, the blubber layer is thinner than normal, hinting at the possibility that they no longer find enough food due to the noise.

At conferences over the past year, project scientists have shared compelling animated sequences showing similar patterns; so far, only still images are available online. UPDATE! A recent article on this work in the journal Science (from which the Clark quotes above were drawn) has a link to a good video (note: the video has minimal interpretation. I find the upper left graph most compelling: it shows the whale call (in blue), loud near the whale and fainter as the cone spreads out; the red disc is the noise from the ship, gradually getting louder than the whale calls, until it drowns out the whale everywhere except very nearby). For more on this important research, see this recent article which contains two stills from a different animation, this section of the Stellwagen website on the passive acoustic monitoring program,  this movie which visualizes the movements and sounds of two nearby and some more distant humpback whales, and hear this local radio piece on the Stellwagen research.

MEAM newsletter provides great status report on Marine Spatial Planning around the world

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The most recent issue of the Marine Ecosystem and Management newsletter (download here) has several features that offer a good sense of current efforts to adopt Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and its related management principle, Ecosystem Based Management (ESB).  The lead article centers on reports from Massachusetts, Norway, and Germany, each oriented toward the relationship between MSP and ESB.  Shorter pieces include interrviews on related topics and direct readers to recent management plans, proposals, and reports by the US Federal Government, the State of Massachusetts, and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.  For more on MEAM programs and publications, see the MEAM website.

Navy plans to add sonar training in Gulf of Alaska spurs local concerns, as NMFS prepares to issue permits

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The final EIS in the Navy’s multi-year effort to get its training activities into legal compliance with NEPA requirements is heading for the finish line.  Adding to the drama, however, is the fact that the Navy is pushing to introduce active sonar training into the Gulf of Alaska—while previous EISs at other training ranges proposed continuing sonar training at or near levels that have been taking place for years, the Alaskan proposal would bring sonar training for the first time into Alaskan waters rich with marine mammal habitat.  While the Alaskan range where sonar training would take place is relatively small compared to many of the other ranges on the east and west coasts of the continental US, it is within dozens of miles of key whale habitat, and locals have expressed much concern at public hearings.  For more detail, see these links to Alaskan newspaper coverage.

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Meanwhile, as the Navy completes the EIS, it has also applied for the Incidental Harassment Authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which announced in early February its intention to issue a Letter of Authorization to permit Navy activities as planned from December 2010 to December 2015.  The Navy estimates that its covered activities will take individuals of 20 species of marine mammals (15 cetaceans and 5 pinnipeds) through Level B behavioral harassment. “Further, the Navy requests authorization to take 3 individual beaked whales (of any of the following species: Baird’s beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, Stejneger’s beaked whale) annually by serious injury or mortality.” See the Navy’s IHA application here, and NMFS notice of intent to issue the LOA here.

Vinalhaven begins month-long “experiment” in reducing noise issues

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 4 Comments »

The Fox Islands Electrical Cooperative on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, has begun a month-long experiment as a first step in trying to come up with a local solution to noise issues from three wind turbines that began operating in November.  About two dozen people within a half-mile of the turbines have reported annoying levels of noise, with six property owners claiming that their lives are severely impacted.  Others in the same area who can hear the turbines are not particularly bothered by the noise.

Shortly after the turbines started operating, and some residents (including some who were excited about the wind farm, and some who had been skeptical) reported unexpected noise issues, neighbors began noting the times that the sound was most troublesome, in an effort to identify what wind directions or atmospheric conditions might be most to blame.  At its January meeting the Board of the electric coop decided to conduct a month-long “experiment” during February, in which the turbines would be slowed down in random patterns.  Sound measurements will be made throughout the month, and the 38 households within a half-mile are being asked to log their sense of the noise on a regular basis (half these households are summer people, so are unlikely to be participating). In a letter to coop members, the board said the experiment “will enable us, as a community, to figure out what to do and come to a solution that works, as well as possible, for everyone.”

A very detailed article in The Working Waterfront, a local paper, features a variety of comments from a locals about the process that is underway to find a community-based solution to the noise problems. Some find that the noise is moderate enough to be tolerable, easily drowned out by other sounds such as the TV or a car passing by, or being no more bothersome than a dishwasher running in another room; one person remembers the noisy generator that used to provide power to the town in the 60s and 70s, which people got used to.  Some who have been disturbed share their perceptions, as well;  Ethan Hall notes that “I’ve never heard anything in my life that sounds like it.”  Both he and Lindgren (another neighbor being affected) believe that current sound measurement standards do not take into account the complexity of turbine noise and its true impact. “The nature of the sound is so unique, that to try and quantify or qualify it with a strict dBa [decibel] measurement is an entirely inadequate way of describing the effect on people and surroundings,” Hall feels.  An hour-long radio interview with Hall and others being affected, recorded this past December, is available on the WERU website.

UK announces major offshore wind leases

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The UK government announced lease bid winners for nine offshore wind development zones that together aim to provide 25% of the country’s electricity by 2020.  The winning companies will next submit development proposals, which will go through normal planning and permitting processes, with construction targeted to begin in 2014.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “Our policies in support of offshore wind energy have already put us ahead of every other country in the world. This new round of licences provides a substantial new platform for investing in UK industrial capacity.”

For more detail, see this post on the Yes2Wind website, which promotes wind development in the UK.

UPDATE (3/9/10):  In the wake of the “Round 3″ leases noted here, doubts have been raised about whether the goal of fully building out the leases is realistic; limits in the supply chain for building such turbines is a major concern, as is financing.  See these two articles for more.

NY Congressman on wind farm noise in his district

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This one is a bit old (from last spring), but seems worth pointing to because it provides a somewhat new perspective on the wind farm noise debate.  US Congressman Eric Massa represents a district which is at the center of public concern about noise issues, thanks to a proposed wind farm in Plattsburg, not far from an existing wind farm in Cohocton that has spurred quite a lot of complaints.

In this interview with a local radio station, the Congressman describes some of the stories he’s heard from constituents, as well as his larger questions about the logic of building wind farms in areas like this that have only marginal wind resources (winds are strong enough to produce electricity only 30% of the time).  He also frames the issue as one of small towns being over-powered by the interests of foreign companies.

Two of the more compelling tidbits come in a brief moment of the interview, when Massa speaks of a constituent who “agreed to have a lease on his property and now he is saying – I have to move out of my property. It’s quite amazing. Not to mention the fact that as we talked about, hunters are now coming up and telling me that there’s no wildlife anywhere within distance, and I’m talking three to four miles, of any of these wind turbines because these wind turbines emit low frequency vibrations that drive the deer away.”

Listening in on Antarctica

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The latest podcast from Touch Music, a British label that’s been the source of many of the best soundscape releases over the past decade, is a wonderful 45-minute radio documentary style piece from Chris Watson, who recently spent time in Antarctica.  The Disquiet blog has a nice introductory post and embedded audio, so go there to listen to Chris share his experiences in words and sounds.  His narrative descriptions of landscape and his travels (including flying into the south pole), and of course his stellar recordings of penguins, seals, and creaking ice, are well worth spending an hour with!

While pondering Antarctica, I want to also mention a recent CD release that will appeal to the science-minded among you: Andrea Polli, an educator and sound artist with a special interest in sonification of scientific data, especially as related to climate change, spent much of her time in Antarctica following working scientists around as they pursued their many fascinations.  Her CD, Sonic Antarctica was released last year on the fantastic German Gruenrekorder label; the CD is a uniquely satisfying immersion into the sounds and science of the southern continent.   Andrea’s site 90 Degrees South is also a great place to go to read and hear posts on her time there, and to view a short film she created, Ground Truth, which focuses on why  people go to remote, uncomfortable and often hazardous locations, to do what is known as ‘ground truthing.’

It seems that hooking a grant-ride on the Antarctic Express has become quite the rite of passage for many sound artists in recent years.  Doug Quin was among the first, going down in 1996 and again in 1999 to be there at the turn of the millennium. More recently,  Craig Vear, from the UK, created the most elaborate artistic response to the place with his DVD, CD, and book Antarctica: Musical Images from the Frozen Continent, which features compelling imagery, historic films, and a half-hour audio-video piece combining field recordings and spoken remembrances from Antarctic scientists.

New AEI report: Wind Farm Noise, 2009 in Review

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines 8 Comments »

The latest in AEI’s ongoing series of comprehensive special reports on key topics is finally done!

This one is modeled on AEI’s acclaimed annual reviews of science and policy developments in ocean noise, but focuses for the first time on wind farm noise issues.  The 30-page report covers new research, public concerns, and industry trends over the past year.

Read the report in the embedded pdf reader below, or download a pdf copy.  Click on to below the fold for a table of contents and the report’s brief Introduction.

Read the rest of this entry »

Minnesota PUC grapples with wind farm setbacks

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A hearing by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission heard testimony from residents and agency staff this week, and indicated that it was going to take its time in setting statewide wind farm siting guidelines.  “I think there are a lot of remaining unanswered questions. I think there are a lot of … substantive questions as well,” Commissioner Phyllis Reha said. “I think the commission has a lot of work to do before we make any kinds of decisions.”

Monday’s hearing focused on a report issued last year by the Minnesota Department of Health outlining the potential health impacts from wind turbine noise. The PUC and its staff requested health department officials review scientific literature after people statewide raised concerns regarding wind projects.

In the scientific report, state health officials – drawing from National Research Council findings – noted that noise from wind turbines “generally is not a major concern for humans beyond a half-mile or so.”  Nonetheless, the report and PUC staff recommended that setbacks be increased only to 1000 feet; current regulations set a 500 foot minimum, but the night time noise limit of 50dB means that in practice, most turbines are sited at least 700-1200 feet from homes.

Some groups – including Goodhue County residents – have advocated setbacks of six-tenths of a mile or even 1.25 miles to prevent possible health effects, a point PUC staff and others say is supported by “scant” evidence. Still, Commissioner J. Dennis O’Brien said, “We know these issues are strong and heartfelt … and genuine and real. We’ll just have to struggle with it for a while, I think.”

Special soundscape-focused issue of Park Science magazine

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This came out in December, but I forgot to post about it then.  The National Park Service’s science magazine has published an entire issue devoted to the NPS’s soundscape studies and programs.

A couple strolls through Cathedral Grove on a quiet morning in winter when visitation is typically low. Signage at the entrance to this area reminds visitors that they are in a quiet zone. (NPS Photo/Lou Sian)

A couple strolls through Cathedral Grove on a quiet morning in winter when visitation is typically low. Signage at the entrance to this area reminds visitors that they are in a quiet zone. (NPS Photo/Lou Sian)

Articles include:

  • Measuring and monitoring soundscapes in the national parks
  • Integrating soundscapes into NPS planning
  • Conserving the wild life therein–Protecting park fauna from anthropogenic noise
  • Soundscapes monitoring and an overflight advisory group: Informing real-time management decisions at Denali
  • Soundscape management at Grand Canyon National Park
  • Generator noise along the US-Mexico border
  • A program of research to support management of visitor-caused noise at Muir Woods National Monument

And, as they say, much, much more!  See the issue online here; from there, you can read every article in full. Note that the html views break each article into several separate pages, but you can also view in a “printer-ready” format that loads the entire article into a FlashPaper format, or you can view or download the full articles as pdfs.

A Topology of Sound Maps

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Very cool collection of various approaches to sound mapping, recently posted at Weird Vibrations.  Here’s the first post, sharing their overview of several sound mapping models, including collaborative documentary, composition, preservation, and policy-oriented.  And here’s a follow-up post of others sent in by readers.  And to go one step further, here’s a delicious link from a commenter, to his own collection of sound maps.  And, oh, what the heck: here’s the current list of sound maps from AEI’s main site!

Paris Sound Map (click to read 1st post)

Paris Sound Map (click to read 1st post)

Those of you who were attracted to this particular post topic may well also enjoy checking by Weird Vibrations this week, where they’ve just begun an “open thread” on Acoustic Ecology, centered around their upcoming reviews of Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch book, and a book on sound weapons; the initial questions posed are promisingly provocative: ” First, is understanding sound as an ecosystem practical? In other words, can this formulation help us deal with noise in a just fashion? How does the ecological metaphor sit with you? Second, does acoustic ecology’s focus on “natural” preservation make it essentially conservative? This is a charge that’s latent (if not explicit) in some recent Sound Studies work that foregrounds technology. What do you think?”