North Atlantic right whale swimming underwater

Saving the Whales From Offshore Wind Farm Noise Pollution

by kirkcoburn
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NOTE: I wrote this article a few weeks ago after seeing numerous reports of whales washing up on the East Coast…this week, another whale was found and ultimately died.

The famed New Jersey Boardwalk, where Miss America contestants once trod the beach in grandma swimsuits and the Trump Taj Mahal casino loomed in bordello splendor, has another claim to fame. Seven dead whales have washed up on the Jersey shore since mid-December, and nobody knows why. Last week, environmentalists and offshore wind farm opponents had a press conference demanding a federal investigation into why the whales are dying. Then, to make the point even sharper, they had the media congregate on the latest grave, where the sand wasn’t quite up to the task of masking the odor of a decomposing whale. 

Marine mammal experts say that the mortality of these humpback whales can’t be directly traced to wind farms; it’s also possible there’s a larger whale population this winter, and the deaths are proportional. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is adopting the party line that it’s not the offshore wind farm at fault. 

Color me skeptical.

Oceanic Sounds of Silence

When you go to the beach, it’s pretty quiet except for the sounds of the waves and the birds. Go underwater, and it’s an unbelievably serene sort of quiet — no noise except the muffled sounds of the waves over your head. Divers experience an even deeper level of silence when they go deep — no sounds at all. And it’s dark — no sunlight at all beyond a few feet deep. 

Above the water, light travels faster than sound, so it is the primary way we negotiate the world. Underwater, sound travels faster and farther than light. Here’s a quick energy primer. Water molecules absorb and disperse the energy from light, while sound energy stays intact and travels quickly between water molecules. 

The underwater environment means that marine mammals’ hearing has evolved to be their strongest sense. For a dolphin or a whale to navigate their world, they depend on sound waves. But the soundscape needs to be quiet for them to hear the varying frequencies of the waves. 

There is some ambient noise in the ocean — the occasional volcano gurgling, snapping shrimp, or thunder — but these noises are like lighting levels. Your eyes adjust to bright sunlight and then to a darker indoors, and marine organisms make the same adjustments with their hearing, maximizing how they hunt and communicate. 

Sonar and Mammals

Whales and other marine mammals have bio-sonar, which is the organic version of active sonar the Navy and whatnot use. The whales send out calls and listen for the echoes that bounce back from objects in the ocean… ships, other whales, shipwrecks, you name it. This sonar capability is critical to their survival. 

Man-made sonar, or active sonar, is a mechanical means to emit pulses of sound and then record the responding echoes. Sonar is used to estimate an object’s location in the ocean, just like a whale uses it to find prey. Naval sonar has a range of 620 miles. It’s great for scoping out enemy submarines but hell on a whale’s hearing. 

Baleen whales (including gray, right, and humpback) emit low-frequency sonar for communication and higher-frequency sounds to hunt. 

Yes, Sonar Is Dangerous for Whales

After years of dispute, the US Navy finally admitted that low-frequency sonar is within the audible range for whales and that it is loud enough to drown out communications between whales and other animals. When they can’t communicate, they often get confused and maybe physically hurt because they can’t navigate. 

The Architecture of an Offshore Wind Farm

New Jersey and New York coastlines aren’t the only places where the whale population is dying off. The coast of California is also having problems, as is the Scottish coast, where the largest offshore wind farm in the world is in the North Sea. 

A solar farm consists of large turbines (they’re too big to be simple windmills) that are connected by cables that transfer the power to a substation that collects power from all the turbines, then moves it along to an on-shore transformer station. 

So it’s not only the sound disturbance that is dangerous for whales; it’s also the structure of the turbine itself and the cables that can cause more problems. 

Why Here?

The Biden administration has put a spotlight on climate, which means dedicating billions of dollars towards research and implementation of renewable energy. Wind power is a relatively cheap renewable, but finding the open spaces for a scaled facility isn’t easy in the developed world. Hence, the ocean; it offers millions of square miles of ocean breezes that can be turned into electricity. As it happens, there’s a continental shelf that runs off the eastern seaboard of the US with (relatively) shallow waters that make installing the turbines easier than going out to deep water. 

This is bad luck for the North Atlantic right whales, as it is directly in their migratory path. These are the most endangered whales; fewer than 400 still exist. 

Seismic Noise Is Dangerous to Whales

Constructing an offshore wind farm (let alone several) is unbelievably disruptive to the ocean. First, they send out low-frequency sonar to find the most amenable places to install the turbines. As I mentioned earlier, even this low-frequency sound can be discombobulating for the whales.

The actual building of the turbine platforms is worse. The seismic surveys that are typically used for underwater oil and gas searches are also part of mapping the seabed for locating the turbines. A seismic blast is a loud noise burst — in 10-second intervals — from a high-powered air gun. Construction workers also use these air guns to drive the pilings into the sea bed, a practice that damages the whale’s inner ear, which is their internal sonar. 

Ongoing Noise Pollution From Each Offshore Wind Farm

Right whale breaching the surface of the ocean

Unlike Naval operations, which can be scheduled when whales aren’t in the vicinity (and are also sporadic), an offshore wind farm runs constantly. It might be more tolerable for environmentalists if whales and other marine life were only endangered during construction, but these turbines run all the time. Every. Single. Day. 

It’s indisputable that the turbines and substations make underwater noise, so the question is this: is it enough to harm the whales further? There is any number of studies that may fall on either side of the issue. But it’s fair to say that unending sounds and vibrations from the equipment aren’t particularly good for marine life. 

The equipment’s consistent hum is less than that of a large cargo ship passing by. Great. The key word here is passing — the cargo ship comes and goes, leaving silence in its wake. The cumulative noise pollution from multiple turbines is a force multiplier, and we can’t ignore the impact of all this disruption to marine life. 

Noise Pollution Isn’t the Only Danger

Marine mammals’ prospects along the Jersey shore have apparently been somewhat dicey for a while. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center just north of Atlantic City has been rescuing animals since 1978. The Center is well aware of the whale deaths. But it is taking a wait-and-see approach about the causes, pending autopsy results (yes, that’s a thing). They say it could be military sonar, ship collisions, or ingesting plastics. It’s also the time of year that right whales are most populous along the coast. So it’s also possible, the Center hypothesizes, that it’s natural attrition. 

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that if a whale bumps into a ship, it’s entirely likely that the whale can’t hear it. So, that’s on the offshore wind farm.

Government Plans to Save the Whales

Two things can be true at once. So it should be no surprise that federal agencies are playing both sides when it comes to whales and wind farms. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) told CBS News that there was no direct evidence that tied seismic surveys to dead whales (Government…we pay them and do not forget; however, there is and will always be a huge agency problem whereby they always look out for themselves first, instead of its owners). But they’ve also implemented a new plan to protect the right whale. 

NOAA Fisheries chimed in on the “no connection” assessment and is co-sponsoring the BOEM project. 

This is all well and good. But in late October, the NMSF proposed basically giving the wind farm developer Ortsed (a Danish company) and the Ocean Wind 1 project a five-year free pass when it comes to damaging whale habitats and harming the animals. Under this proposal, Orsted can install up to:

  • 101 turbine generators
  • Three offshore substations
  • The cabling that connects everything
  • Maintenance and operations facilities

Granted, these last two are on land, but this is a death sentence for the right whales that have managed to stay alive. 

This move has really teed off Maine lobstermen, who are tackling new restrictive rules regarding lobstering gear (pots and nets) and where they can go out and fish — because the whales are endangered. 

I am as a proponent of clean energy, but I get really worked up about keeping the oceans clean and safe for their natural inhabitants. And generators and turbines are not native to any ocean I’ve ever seen. 

There is technology that mitigates underwater noise emissions, taking some of the stress off whales and other marine life. The problem is that it’s confined to the construction phase (pile driving) and doesn’t address ongoing noise problems.

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