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China, US Discuss LFAS in China EEZ

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During bilateral meetings on maritime safety, China asked the US to phase out surveillance activity using Low-Frequency Active Sonar near its coast.  Over the past year, there have been five incidents in which Chinese ships (Naval and fishing boats) harassed the USNS Impeccable, one of two US ships equipped with LFAS, and other Navy ships.  The Chinese object to surveillance activity within its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), which extends 200 miles from each country’s coast; the US contends that such activity is only barred within the 12-mile territorial waters zone.

USNS Impeccable (US Navy photo)

USNS Impeccable (US Navy photo)

Navy survey ships were harassed five times this year by Chinese naval and civilian vessels as well as military aircraft in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea – in one case 75 miles south of Hainan island, the location of a strategic Chinese Navy base which reportedly houses ballistic missile submarines. Beijing said at the time that the unarmed Impeccable, was carrying out “illegal surveying” in its EEZ, violating Chinese and international laws. The U.S. Navy says the Impeccable is designed to detect quiet foreign diesel and nuclear-powered submarines and to map the seabed for future antisubmarine warfare purposes.

The key bone of contention is that the Chinese do not accept that the Impeccable’s activities fall under recognized right of navigation in EEZ waters; the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for “freedom of navigation and overflight” in EEZs. It says military activities inside EEZs must be “peaceful” and must not harm the coastal state’s environment or economic resources. Read the rest of this entry »

Canadian Survey Receives Go-Ahead from Court

News, Seismic Surveys 2 Comments »

A  Canadian court has declined to issue a stay to prevent the vents survey from continuing.  The ship has reached the research area, and has begun the planned project, which involves laying bottom-mounted receivers and doing ten days of airgun shots.  In the course of the short legal brouhaha, it came out that the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs had essentially lost Columbia University’s application for Foreign Ship clearance from February until mid-July, thus contributing to the lack of time for all concerned parties to respond to the plans prior to these hectic pre-cruise days.  An amended permit application from Columbia, submitted the day after the initial lawsuit was filed, was accepted by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans; it aims to avoid exposing any whales to more than 160dB of sound, which creates an effective “exclusion zone” of nearly 7km (which should easily protect the critically endangered North Pacific right whales that EcoJustice mentioned in a TV interview, as they summer in Alaskan waters). The 7km exclusion zone is rather shocking, as only last May I participated in a DFO seismic mitigation expert committee meeting at which the oil and gas industry and agency staff were fully content with 500m exclusion zones, except in especially rich and sensitive whale habitat, where the most extensive exclusion zones were, as I recall, 2.5km.  What sorts of magical powers will be employed by Marine Mammal Observers aboard the Langseth to effectively observe at this super-human distance, was not detailed by the DFO. In any case, the relative lack of whales in this region this time of year should mean that disruption is minimal, though some may well hear and avoid the survey; various species seem to avoid seismic sounds at different distances, from a kilometer or two for most species to 20-30km for belugas and bowhead whales (neither of which occur in this region).  Read the earlier AEInews post covering this incident here. Recent news reports can be read here and here.

Ontario Wind Developers Buy 6 Unlivable Homes and Gag Sellers?

News, Wind turbines 4 Comments »

An Ontario group that compiles reports of troubles with wind farms has claimed that wind power companies have spent $1.75 million to buy six homes in Dufferin County.  According to the report, these six families had found their homes unlivable after wind farms began operations, and all were required to sign gag orders as part of their buy-outs. Given the gag orders, hard information on the distances from each home to operating turbines is not fully available, but from limited personal communication with folks in the area, it appears that the homes ranged from 700m to 2.5km from the turbines (just under a half mile to just over 1.5 miles).

UPDATE 11/09: According to Canadian Hydro Developers, only two of the homes were purchased due to noise issues; the others, the company says, were purchased during construction for company personnel, and will be resold.  More on this in a recent article here.

Offshore Wind Farms May Be Heard Many Miles Away?

Health, News, Wind turbines 2 Comments »

As AEI has tracked noise complaints around wind farms on land, which seem fairly common between a half mile and mile (and in some cases up to a mile and half or so), I’ve held on to the idea that offshore will be the better way to go.  Offshore wind developers have been mostly aiming for siting turbines far enough offshore to minimize visual impacts (2 or more miles), which I had assumed would also make them inaudible from shore.  But recent reports are throwing some doubts on that hopeful thought.  We need to hear more from other locations, but a wind farm that began operating on Wolfe Island, Ontario, this summer has surprised local observers with its long-range sound transmission.

Wolfe Island Wind Farm

Wolfe Island Wind Farm

Wolfe Island is at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Even ship operators have noticed turbine noise at 2-3 miles distant (and ships are not exactly a quiet place to listen from), and locals across the channel in Cape Vincent, NY have also been hearing the wind farm readily at 2-3 miles, and, in some atmospheric conditions, as far away as 7 miles!  Yikes….   The reasons for the easy long-range sound transmission are not yet known, though sound does travel well across water, so that may be a key feature.  If so, it ups the ante on offshore wind farms, at least when prevailing winds are toward shore.  (Though we must note that this is not along the coast, but rather at the end of a huge lake which fosters strong prevailing winds.) This one is not yet a clear red flag, but it bears watching….

And, on a brighter note, the health of Wolfe Island residents is being charted by Queen’s University researchers, in the first research study to assess health before and after wind farm operations begin in a community.  This is an important next step in clarifying whether the health effects that have previously been reported are widespread, or rare.

John Luther Adams: The Place Where You Go to Listen (new book)

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An AEI book review of The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music
by John Luther Adams

Fairbanks-based John Luther Adams is likely the most place-based composer of his generation.  His music for orchestra, small ensembles, percussion, and electronics is music of the wild north, not merely from Alaska but seemingly drawn forth from the land, people, animals, and sky.  From explicit works like Earth and the Great Weather, with its incantations of native place and animal names, to subtler pieces such as In the White Silence, Adams has created a musical vernacular that is all his own, in service of knowing and expressing the land that seems to absorb him into its own deep rhythms.  The New Yorker carried a wonderful extended profile of him last year, and now Wesleyan University Press has released his second book, which invites us into his creative process during the design of a permanent installation at the Museum of the North.  In a long, slightly curved room, Adams and his collaborators created a space in which the earth and sky outside “compose” an eternal musical reverie.  Drawing on his decades of cultivating a musical voice that utilizes long, slow changes, carefully considered intervals, and percussion, Adams programmed electronics that transform various aspects of the surrounding environment into musical gestures, which together sing a song of this place.  In short, widely ranging diary entries, The Place Where You Go to Listen invites us into the two-year process of pondering, and then realizing, this grand expression of his compositional vision.

Click on Cover to order from Amazon

Click on Cover to view book on Amazon

The installation takes its name from a poem Adams wrote years ago (and which was a core inspiration in my own ode to soundscape art, The Dreams of Gaia).  The poem shares the tale of a woman who hears the world in the direct, complete ways that have become distant for too many of us.  The composition-cum-programming that fills this space at the Museum of the North with sound and light contains sonic representations of the core expressions of the region’s land- and sky-scape, including:

  • The Choirs of Day and Night: Pitch and amplitude of parts of the music respond to the presence and height in the sky of the sun, including deep tones when it is below the horizon.  Meanwhile, the moon triggers its own choral textures; of course, at times they share the sky, and the room, and at times they are absent, while the extent of cloud cover also colors these tones.
  • Aurora Bells: Magnetometers in five locations across Alaska measure geomagnetic activity; when the magnetic field of the region is active, the listener hears shimmering veils of sound floating across the ceiling.  These sounds occur whether or not the aurora are obscured by clouds; as Adams notes, “The Place doesn’t illustrate the visible.  It doesn’t amplify the audible.  It resonates with the inaudible and invisible.”
  • Earth Drums: Seismic data from five other places in Alaska trigger virtual drums in The Place: “During moderate to large earthquakes, low-frequency sounds rumble and boom through the space as different stations receive the seismic vibrations at different times and intensities.”  Smaller seismic events, imperceptible to humans, also trigger the Earth Drums in a more transient, localized way; the distance to the mini-quakes, as well as the three-dimensional movement of seismic waves, alter specific aspects of the sounds.

The book draws us into Adam’s world with frank discussions of the challenges inherent in “tuning” scientific data into music, as well as the nuts and bolts of designing and building The Place itself, alongside generous (but never indulgent or rambling) glimpses into his family life, reflections on the political and environmental tenor of our times, and his all-important times in the wild.  Taken together, these varied musings add up to a rare and valuable opportunity to enter the mind and heart of an artist as he grapples with both the mundane and the profound.  I took my time working through this two-year journey alongside John Luther Adams, and by the end I was surely itching to spend a day (or a season!) listening to The Place.  In his Afterward, I enjoyed sharing his delight that visitors “often hear things I haven’t heard before, and they understand The Place in ways I hadn’t understood it myself.”  And, even more wonderful,  “by now, there are a number of people who have spent more time inside The Place than I have…..Some who work at the museum visit The Place almost every day.  Others who work nearby visit once or twice a week.  Some people meditate, others write or sketch, or just listen.”

Most importantly, though, his words—and his compositions—do far more than invite us into his world. They also point toward ways that we each might experience more fully the places  where we go to listen.  And for this we can thank him for his generosity in sharing his own difficult yet rewarding exploration into his work, and our world.

Obama Admin Looking for Input into Oceans Policy

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Like many others, I’m a little late to this party: in June, the Obama administration kick-started a rapid process of developing a coherent ocean policy.  An “Ocean Policy Task Force” has been charged with making recommendations to the administration in two phases: by mid-September, they are expected to offer a framework for ocean policy as well as a “an implementation strategy that identifies and prioritizes a set of objectives the United States should pursue to meet the objectives of a national policy for the oceans, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.”  Then, by mid-December, the Task Force is asked to recommended a “framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning.  This framework should be a comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based approach that addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict, and sustainable use” of the oceans and Great Lakes.  Public comments are being welcomed here.

AEI has just submitted brief comments on the latter goal, an area in which ocean noise should play a central role. Marine Spatial Planning is agency-speak for ocean zoning, along with an ocean version of ecosystem-based management. Read the rest of this entry »

Canadian Academic Seismic Survey Targeted by EcoJustice

News, Science, Seismic Surveys 3 Comments »

UPDATE (8/27): A Canadian court has declined to issue a stay to prevent the vents survey from continuing.  The ship is en route to the area, and will continue with the planned research project; the first step will be laying bottom-mounted receivers, before commencing ten days of seismic airgun operations during September.  In the course of the short legal brouhaha, it came out that the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs had essentially lost Columbia University’s application for Foreign Ship clearance from February until mid-July, thus contributing to the lack of time for all concerned parties to respond to the plans prior to these hectic pre-cruise days.  An amended permit application from Columbia, submitted the day after the initial lawsuit was filed, was accepted by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans; it aims to avoid exposing any whales to more than 160dB of sound, which creates an effective “exclusion zone” of nearly 7km.  This seems quite surprising, as only last May I participated in a DFO seismic mitigation expert committee meeting at which the oil and gas industry and agency staff seemed fully content with 500m exclusion zones, except in especially rich and sensitive whale habitat, where the most extensive exclusion zones were, as I recall, 2.5km.  What sorts of magical powers will be employed Marine Mammal Observers aboard the Langseth to effectively observe at this super-human distance, was not detailed by the DFO.  In any case, the relative lack of whales in this region this time of year should assure that few if any whales are close enough to be harmed, though some may well hear and avoid it; various species seem to avoid seismic sounds at different distances, from a km or so for some species to 30km for belugas and bowhead whales (neither of which occur in this region).  Recent news reports can be read here and here.

A month-long seismic survey long scheduled to begin this week has been temporarily sidelined by a Canadian court challenge mounted by BC-based EcoJustice. While the Acoustic Ecology Institute has been closely monitoring the effects of seismic surveys for several years, and I do indeed have concerns about the degree to which airgun noise may disrupt foraging in some cetaceans, this particular lawsuit appears to me to be a dramatic over-reaction to what is planned. Throwing up legal roadblocks to a carefully designed, ten-day academic study is a very extreme reaction, and should be reserved for times and places where there is real danger of harm.  But for this survey, the risks are truly negligible—and this is spoken by someone who resents the free use of “negligible impact” in EAs that minimize the effects of chronic behavioral disruption of cetaceans by noise.

The survey, to be run by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and researchers from the University of Oregon, aims to study the geology underlying a deep benthic vent community 250 km offshore from Vancouver Island, as well as the larger tectonic plate structure in this earthquake-prone region.  The lawsuit seeks a restraining order, contending that Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs cannot grant clearance to a foreign vessel that is expected to harass marine mammals in violation of Canadian law. “To ensure compliance with environmental laws, Canada should deny clearance to this vessel and refuse to sanction the harassment of endangered whales” say Lara Tessaro, Ecojustice lawyer.  (I can’t speak to EcoJustice’s point re: Canadian regulatory process, but the whale threat is being wildly overblown; see below) The R.V. Langseth would be outfitted with 36 airguns, which fire together to create a loud impulse sound, with its echoes from deep beneath the seafloor to be recorded by bottom-mounted receivers deployed from  4-10km apart.  The researchers completed an Environmental Assessment and received permits from NMFS, in accordance with US law governing research funded by the US National Science Foundation (see EA with project summary and projected whale encounters).

The EA projects that the survey could encounter a few whales in the area, which was designated as an MPA in order to protect the still little-studied communities of invertebrates around the hot vents.  Up to 9 minke whales, 12 fin whales, 26 sperm whales, and 3 blue whales, along with several hundred of the regions many thousands of dolphins are expected to hear sounds of 160dB or more, enough to likely make them move away; these exposures will occur at ranges of 4-8km.  No injuries are expected, as both visual and passive acoustic monitoring will aim to power down the airguns if any animals approach the safety zone of 700-1200m.  Read the rest of this entry »

Corporate Acoustic Ecology, via The Sound Agency

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Cliff Feigenbaum just pointed me toward a corporate consulting business has been up and running since 2004 in the UK: The Sound Agency will help any corporation or small business to tune into the sonic messages that their brand and daily operations are engaged in, and to fine-tune their sonic image.   They’ve got some top-flight sound artists working with them, too: ambient/electronic wiz David Toop and Harmonic Choir founder David Hykes for starters, along with sound healing expert Joshua Leeds, and, perhaps for more of an edge, Barry Adamson, late of Magazine and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  Their work ranges from assessing the company’s phone, office, and advertising sound choices, to creating a “sonic logo.”  One of their featured products is generative soundscapes for use in offices and phone lines; these sound loops are layered with several tracks that create never-repeating mood music tuned to the place they are being used, or to “brand voice” of the company.  Founder Julian Treasure, himself a drummer in several post-punk bands in the 70s and 80s, wrote the book Sound Business in 2007.

Maine Wind Farm Debates Continue in Mars Hill, Roxbury

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

With one of the nation’s “poster child” noisy wind farms in Mars Hill and a popular former governor advocating (and financing) more use of wind power, the State of Maine continues to be at the forefront of the debate over how much credence to give to neighbors’ reports and concerns about wind turbines close to their homes.  Seventeen neighbors of the Mars Hill wind farm, who live from under 2000 feet out to 3600 feet from active turbines, have filed suit against the wind farm developer, asking for compensation for loss of property values, nuisance and emotional distress, and upgrades to the turbines to make them quieter (download the full complaint).

The Todd Residence in Mars Hill.  Photo by Anne Ravana.

The Todd Residence in Mars Hill. Photo by Anne Ravana.

The state gave the Mars Hill farm a variance to the state noise ordinance, allowing it to be 5dB louder than normally permitted; recordings made by a state-funded acoustics firm indicated that not all locations were fully in compliance, yet the state signed off on the results as being good enough.  The state also hired an acoustics consultant to peer-review the monitoring study, and in his report, this consultant expressed several concerns with the results, saying that “wind turbine noise needs more investigation!” Read the rest of this entry »

Navy Outlines Recent, Ongoing Behavioral Response Studies

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A detailed article-cum-press release from Navy News provides the most information currently available on three studies that will be central to addressing ongoing questions about the Navy’s assessment of the behavioral responses of whales and dolphins to Navy mid-frequency active sonar. Two of the studies took place on US Navy instrumented ranges during normal Naval sonar training exercises, and the third is a Controlled Exposure Experiment taking place this summer in the Mediterranean.  Both the Navy and outside observers (including AEI) will be looking closely at the results of these studies, since the most contentious aspect of current Navy sonar planning involves identifying the sound levels at which behavioral responses (such as fleeing or suspending foraging) become widespread enough to warrant protective measures.  Current safety guidelines only kick in when whales are within 3000 feet, far less than the range at which behavioral responses occur.  Critiques of current Navy EISs focus on the large numbers of animals predicted to change their behavior, and on a “risk function” developed by NMFS that assumes very few whales are affected at sound levels below 145dB. Read the rest of this entry »

ND Rejects Neighbor Request to Move 4 Disputed Turbines to Beyond Half Mile From His Home

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The North Dakota Public Service Commission declined to intervene in a last-minute request from a Luverne couple who wanted a neighboring wind farm moved from near their property line.  The Jim and Mary Anne Miller build dog sleds and keep 21 huskies for testing them, and were concerned that the 80 turbines planned in an area extending out to a half mile from their home would be disruptive to both the dogs and them. “I think it’s ridiculous that they would force this noise onto us, and we’re supposed to be happy about it,” Mary Ann Miller said in an AP story. The quiet of the rural area “is one of the big assets that we have here,” she said. “We don’t live next to Kmart or Wal-Mart.”  The PSC agreed only to ask the wind farm developer, NextEra Energy Corporation, if it would be practical to move the project to a half to three-quarters of a mile from the Millers, as they had hoped, a move of roughly a quarter mile.  However, construction of four of the turbine foundations has already begun, a NextEra spokesman said determining the placements was a “highly technical exercise” that could not easily be changed. “We think that the array that we’ve laid out is very sound for a number of reasons,” Stengel said. “Once we do that, we don’t think there is any need to move those turbines.”  The project was approved in June. UPDATE: This news report from the week before the hearing says that only the 4 turbines under construction (the closest of which was 1400 feet from a home) were under dispute and being asked to be moved, and that the company apparently began construction with those very four.  “I’m just incredibly frustrated,” said Merrie Helm, one of the neighbors asking for the turbines to be moved to a half mile from homes. “It’s like the small person in North Dakota just doesn’t matter. That’s how it feels.”

This case is one of the first that has revolved around what appears to be a common threshold for noise issues with wind farms, the half mile to mile range.  Though setbacks of a mile or more may still be warranted if the goal is to avoid noise problems altogether, very few serious noise complaints have arisen from wind farms that are three-quarters of a mile or more from homes.  Thus the Millers request, while coming too late for serious consideration, was very reasonable.  A recent report from the UK highlights another perspective on this half-mile issue: the Westmills Wind Farm consists of four turbines, all within a half mile of the village of Watchfield.  However, the project brought 2400 locals into a cooperative which owns 100% of the farm.  This is an example of a growing trend in the UK, by which communities buy into wind farm projects.  In these cases, it may well be that occasional noise issues are more easily accepted, in contrast to projects in which the noise is foisted upon unwilling neighbors.  An important note is that (as usual), news reports on both of these cases neglected to clarify whether the homes a half mile away were upwind or downwind of the wind farm sites, which can make a huge difference as to whether noise issues are likely to crop up.

Here We Go Again: Salazar Cuts Yellowstone Snowmobile Numbers, Wyoming Sues Next Day

News, Vehicles 3 Comments »

It’s deja vu all over again over again over again, as Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar stepped up as the third Administration to attempt the now seemingly absurd task of setting permanent rules governing the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Both the Clinton and Bush plans ended up with dueling Federal District Court rulings in Wyoming (where relatively snowmobile-friendly decisions tend to result), and DC (where results tend to hew more toward the analysis done by the Park Service, recommending limits).  This time, it took only one day for the State of Wyoming to dash into Judge Clarence Brimmer’s District Court and urge the new plan to be set aside.

The Obama administration has proposed a temporary rule for snowmobile management over the coming two winters, while yet another Environmental Impact Statement is developed.  Their proposal matches the recommendation made in the Park Service’s last EIS, to allow 318 snowmobiles a day into the Park.  The Bush administration had ignored this recommendation, and in November 2008 instead proposed a rule allowing 540 per day; the DC court said that the choice was not sufficiently backed up by the EIS, and ordered the Park to come up with a new plan.  When the Park proposed the 318 number for last winter, the Wyoming court issued a ruling that spurred differing interpretations; the Park Service (likely sensing the likelihood of a judicial logjam blocking the entire snowmobile season), decided that the Wyoming ruling mandated them to revert to an expired 2004 Final Rule that allowed 720 machines, though environmental organizations held that the Judge had made no such firm requirement.  In any case, Wyoming is now aiming to clarify that ruling, by asking Judge Brimmer to affirm their interpretation that his 2008 ruling requires the Park Service to revert to the 2004 rule until a new EIS is completed. As usual, local news outlets like the Jackson Hole Daily have some of the most thorough coverage.

A reality check: last year, the average number of snowmobiles entering Yellowstone was only 205, while in the previous winter the average was 295.  Only a few peak days would trigger the new limit; last year’s top usage day was December 29, when 426 machines entered the Park.  Ever since the establishment of the “guided-tour-only” requirement (a part of the first Bush proposal, meant to overturn the Clinton-era phase-out of snowmobiles), total snowmobile use in Yellowstone has declined dramatically, from a previous average of 840 machines per day during the Clinton years, with peak weekend totals of 1600-2000. Meanwhile, snowcoach ridership has nearly doubled. Still, sound monitoring has found that vehicles were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.  It’s not clear yet whether the Obama team will attempt a brand-new EIS, as the Bush team did, or opt for a somewhat faster Revised EIS process; it is unlikely that much new information will be available, beyond  annual noise monitoring data. Tim Stevens, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said that two years is too long for the interim plan. “The Park Service has been working on this for over 10 years,” he said. “They’ve got all the information that they need … to complete this in one year.”

Another Round of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” Fever Hit the Press, Blogosphere

News, Wind turbines 3 Comments »

A recent article in the UK newspaper The Independent has triggered an avalanche of commentary in the press and blogosphere about the possible health effects of living near wind farms; more is sure to come when Nina Pierpont’s Wind Turbine Syndrome book is finally published this fall. In the book, Pierpont posits a set of symptoms that can crop up in people exposed to wind turbine noise; she suspects that low frequency noise is the key factor, and that people with vestibular system imbalances may be especially prone to problems. UPDATE: The wind industry in the UK responded vehemently to the article, which was reprinted in several cities.

At its root, most of the hubbub centers around whether Dr. Pierpont’s research qualifies as science.  The fact that she’s publishing a book instead of journal articles is the first complaint, and relatively easy to understand from a scientific perspective.  But less valid are critiques that claim she used too small a number of people, or did not use “controls”; these complaints are based on a misunderstanding (or conscious misrepresentation) of her work. Much of the criticism is spurred by the perception that she is claiming that the health effects she cites are common, or are likely to occur near any and all wind farms.  As widely noted, wind farms are up and running around the world with little evidence of dire health effects.  However, just as anti-wind activists are clearly putting too much weight on her very preliminary research, so too are wind advocates being too quick to discount Pierpont’s study as hogwash.  More broadly, there is a risk that doubts about the validity of  a formal new “Wind Turbine Syndrome” or other low-frequency effects will distract both the public and policy-makers from the more concrete question of whether current wind farm setbacks adequately protect neighbors from sleeplessness, stress, and simpler, well-known effects of disturbances caused by audible noise.  I’ve been bouncing around the web in recent days, adding what I hope are thoughtful comments to newspaper and blog stories on the issue, and wanted to share some of my commentary here with you all as well: Read the rest of this entry »

2004 Hanalei Bay Incident Not Related to Lunar Cycle; Sonar Link Remains

Science, Sonar 1 Comment »

During the 2004 RIMPAC multinational navy exercises in Hawaii, a pod of over 150 melon-headed whales appeared in a shallow bay, far from their normal offshore habitat.  Their agitation was obvious, and one young whale beached and died.  When it became apparent that sonar training was taking place offshore that day, the Navy initially said that the transmissions did not begin until later in the day, but later confirmed that some early-morning calibration of the sonar took place.  A NOAA investigation determined that sonar was the “likely, if not probable” cause for the stranding; this statement was clarified later by NMFS, to affirm that they were not sure of the link.  On the same day, another pod of melon-headed whales had appeared in a shallow bay on the western Pacific island of Rota, spurring speculation that the full moon may trigger this species to undertake feeding excursions into shallow bays, with the Hawaii pod subsequently getting disoriented and panicked (perhaps due to the sonar sounds offshore).  The similarity of the incidents led many observers (including AEI) to be less sure that the Hanalei event could be tied primarily to a reaction to Navy sonar.

A study in the July issue of Marine Mammal Science (and summarized here by ScienceNow), however, puts the lunar theory to rest.  NOAA researcher Robert Brownell examined the two incidents closely, along with 21 other mass strandings of melon-headed whales.  It turns out that the western Pacific population of melon-headed whales often retreat into shallow bays to rest; this trait is not shared by the whales around Hawaii. “That is their normal behavior,” says Brownell. In contrast, the whales’ actions in Hawaii were “identical to those that precede mass-strandings” of beaked whales, with pods swimming agitatedly in tight circles, spy-hopping (rising vertically out of the water), tail-slapping, and vocalizing.”  And, the timing of other strandings showed no correlation with full moons or any part of the lunar cycle.  Figuring out what caused the Kauai whales to strand is important, Brownell says, because so far only mass strandings of beaked whales have been conclusively linked to the Navy’s use of sonar. “It’s a big debate,” says Brownell. “Why are only beaked whales affected and not others? Well, other species are.” Brownell says that melon-headed whales probably aren’t affected as often by naval sonar exercises because, unlike beaked whales, they usually hang out far from shore. He thinks “it was purely a coincidence” that melon-headed whales were near Kauai the morning the Navy ran its sonar test. “If any other cetacean species had been going by that morning, the same thing would have happened,” he says. (Ed. Note: this statement is somewhat more speculative than scientists are usually willing to make…while sonar has induced agitated reactions in orcas who did not strand, beaked whales have not been observed prior to strandings.  And, the final statement is likely to drive other scientists crazy, thanks to its likely unwarrented certainty.  Still, the main point holds true: reactions to sonar are not limited to beaked whales, and this incident is becoming one of our clearest indications of this; other species have died in some multi-species strandings that are considered likely sonar-related by many non-Navy observers, and this summer Minke whales were seen racing away from sonar-emitting ships in the UK)

The U.S. Navy disputes Brownell’s paper. Chip Johnson, a Navy marine scientist, spun the news as well as can be expected, saying that the new study only “contributes more uncertainty” about what happened to the melon-headed whales that morning, presumably because it highlights previously unknown behavioral differences between different populations.  It does, however, seem to put to rest the idea that the two events that day, 6000 miles apart, represent a similar behavioral response to prey or the moon, since the whales in Rota were resting, and the ones in Hawaii were clearly agitated.  Spokesmen from various environmental organizations say this study helps move the Hanalei Bay event more clearly into the sonar-induced category; Michael Jasny of NRDC said of the uncertainty raised by the two events, “It’s really no longer an issue. The question is now, ‘What can be done to fix the problem?'”

Report Suggests Retrofitting Noisiest Few Ships Can Quiet Oceans

Ocean, Shipping 1 Comment »

A report commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and submitted in July to the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee, provides a detailed assessment of the prospects for using ship-quieting technologies to reduce the level of background noise in the world’s oceans.  According to the report, which cites a wide array of recent research, similar types of ships can vary in their sound emissions by 30-40dB; some engineering experts suggest that the noisiest of these could reduce the primary source of noise (propellor cavitation) by 10dB.  The report, Reducing Underwater Noise Pollution from Large Commercial Vessels, by Dr. Marin Retilson, is available for download on the IFAW website. “The noisiest 10% of ships account for between 50% and 90% of the noise pollution and it is these vessels that are most likely to benefit from relatively minor modifications to reduce propeller noise,” said Russell Leaper, an IFAW scientist.  The report summarizes technical approaches to reducing ship noise, with an emphasis on utilizing modern propeller design, along with fins and ducts to improve wake flow, which could reduce noise output from the noisiest ships and be cost effective. There is a relatively poor understanding of noise output from large commercial vessels and the next step is to  do more wide-reaching assessments of individual ship noise, in order to identify the vessels that could make the most difference in reducing ocean noise levels.

A target of a 3dB reduction (i.e. halving the acoustic energy) in 10 years in ocean noise was suggested at an International Workshop on Shipping Noise and Marine Mammals held in Hamburg in April 2008. This target has been endorsed by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. You can download the Hamburg workshop report here.

Exxon Targeted for Continued Sakhalin Development As Gray Whales Arrive to Feed

News, Ocean, Seismic Surveys Comments Off on Exxon Targeted for Continued Sakhalin Development As Gray Whales Arrive to Feed

The World Wildlife Fund is working to build public pressure to force Exxon-Mobil to suspend development activities near the critically important summer feeding grounds of the dwindling Western gray whale near the Sakhalin oil and gas fields on Russia’s north Pacific coast.  This spring, other energy companies took to heart the advice of a special science advisory panel to suspend seismic surveys during this year’s grey whale season (July-October), but Exxon continues its activities, which apparently are centered on construction more than exploration at this point.  According to the Sakhalin consortium, noise monitoring takes place via buoys along the edge of the feeding grounds, and activities are suspended when whales are too close. However, the continued decline of this distinct population (now down to 130, with just 25 breeding females), along with apparent avoidance of the area in past years as noted by the science committee, has spurred calls for extreme caution about any noise-making during the feeding season.

Navy to Avoid Puget Sound in Sonar Training, But…

Ocean, Sonar Comments Off on Navy to Avoid Puget Sound in Sonar Training, But…

After suspending the use of mid-frequency active sonar training activities in Puget Sound in the wake of an incident in 2003 in which sonar sounds appeared to agitate a group of orcas, the Navy confirmed this week that a new sonar training plan, with permits to be issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, will keep future sonar training off the West Coast, and out of inland waterways. Chris Dunagan at the local Kitsap Sun gives the announcement his usual thorough coverage, including context from the past, as well as zeroing in on a key passage in the Navy’s public statement: “Any use of high- or mid-frequency active sonar for training purposes in Puget Sound would be beyond the scope of this permit,” the statement says. “However, outside of this permit, active sonar is used within Puget Sound for safety and navigation; testing; maintenance; and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E).”  An incident in January of this year, during which mid-frequency active sonar was heard through a night, was part of RDT&E activities.  Dunagan explores the question of these multiple activities a bit more in an accompanying blog post.

Noise Concerns Prompt Minnesota PUC Investigation of Setback Standards

Human impacts, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has initiated a formal investigation of wind turbine setback requirements, after numerous complaints about noise.  Minnesota Public Radio has a long piece on the process (both audio and a transcript), and a local regulatory advocate points us to the right documents on the PUC website for more information.

Sleep Disturbance Expert Releases Report on Noise Effects Near Wind Farms

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines Comments Off on Sleep Disturbance Expert Releases Report on Noise Effects Near Wind Farms

A recently-released report by Dr. Christopher Hanning, a UK MD whose specialty is sleep disorders, takes a comprehensive look at factors affecting sleep disturbance caused by nearby wind farms, and is highly recommended reading for anyone working to develop regulations at the local or state level.  Hanning’s primary point is that external noise need not WAKE a sleeper to cause problems, and the repeated “arousals” can break the most restful periods of sleep.  He notes that “The sleep, because it is broken, is unrefreshing, resulting in sleepiness, fatigue, headaches and poor memory and concentration.”  These are precisely the symptoms often reported by people living near wind farms. He stresses that arousals are also associated with “physiological changes, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which are thought to be responsible for the increase in cardiovascular risk. Arousals occur naturally during sleep and increase with age (Boselli 1998) which may make the elderly more vulnerable to wind turbine noise. Arousals may be caused by sound events as low as 32 dBA and awakenings with events of 42dBA (Muzet and Miedema 2005), well within the measured noise levels of current wind farms” and the levels permitted by most jurisdictions.

The report also summarizes other studies suggesting that night-time noise levels are often higher than sound models predict, as well as one that suggests that wind farms cause high levels of annoyance at lower sound levels than other common noise sources.  He concludes that “While it may be possible to produce a reasonable acoustically based theoretical approach to calculating set back distances (Kamperman and James 2008b), it makes more sense to rely on recommendations from observations of the effects on real people at established wind farms.”

Download the full report here.

Thanks to Lynda Barry at National Wind Watch for the heads up.

Death Valley in Queue for FAA Air Tour Management Planning

News, Vehicles, Wildlands Comments Off on Death Valley in Queue for FAA Air Tour Management Planning

Death Valley has become the sixth National Park to initiate a formal Air Tour Management Plan process since the 2000 passage of legislation mandating such plans in National Parks with commercial helicopter or plane overflights.  It’s the first new plan to begin since 2004, when similar planning began at Lake Mead, Mt. Rushmore, and Badlands National Park, and two Hawaii national parks.  The process, under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  has been shockingly slow; initial scoping (information gathering) for Environmental Assessments or EISs took place in 2004 and 2006 in these parks, but there have yet to be any draft EISs released.  Air tour management began at the Grand Canyon well before the 2000 legislation, and continues to move slowly toward final resolution.

At Death Valley, existing helicopter tours operators are hoping that the new process will not limit their activities, which have so far seemed to not cause significant visitor conflicts.  Death Valley also is home to a small airport at which up to 30 private planes land each day, mostly day trippers from Las Vegas or southern California.  The decision to proceed with an ATMP was made at a late June meeting of the National Parks Overflight Advisory Group (NPOAG) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The ARC is hoping to expedite the process at Death Valley by having all stakeholders more directly involved from the beginning, in hopes of demonstrating a process that can complete ATMPs in a more timely fashion at other parks in the future.  Full minutes of that meeting are available here.

See FAA ATMP website

Crater Lake Eyed for Helicopter Tours

News, Vehicles, Wildlands 1 Comment »

UPDATE 3/25/10: The Senate has passed legislation allowing the NPS to ban helicopter tours at Crater Lake without going through a lengthy inter-agency process with the FAA.  The measure still needs to be approved by a House-Senate conference committee.

A request from an air tour operator to begin helicopter flights in Crater Lake National Park has stirred considerable local opposition.  The Oregonian editorialized against the proposal, saying that the rim road already provides suitable access to those who can’t hike far.  The same rim road is used by Leading Edge Aviation in its pitch to allow the flights, as they claim that their ‘copters will not cause any more noise impact than RVs in the summer or snowmobiles in the winter cruising the rim.  Others are skeptical that the choppers are really that quiet. Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild, says, “It’s embarrassing enough that we have only one national park and so little protected wilderness in Oregon. Desecrating the experience at Crater Lake with helicopters buzzing around would be tragic.” Planned air tours range include a half-hour flight that just passes by the north rim and two longer options that skirt other Park landmarks, including Grouse Hill and The Pinnacles. See local press coverage here, and Leading Edge’s tour proposal here.