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IMO shipping noise reduction effort appears adrift at sea

News, Shipping 3 Comments »

Five years ago, the US led an effort to have the International Maritime Organization address the increasing problem of shipping noise as a contributor to the ocean’s rising background ambient noise levels, which reduces the effective communication area for many species of ocean life.  The first couple of years were promising, beginning with the creation of a “high priority work programme” to be undertaken by a special Correspondence Group.  The first  report of the correspondence group, submitted in spring of 2009, along with a submission from IFAW and Friends of the Earth that identified the likelihood that the bulk of shipping noise comes from a small percentage of the noisiest ships of each size, laid the groundwork for rapid adoption of the proposed voluntary guidelines for ship quieting.

This year’s IMO newsletter, though, tells the sad bureaucratic story of how these sorts of initiatives can wither on the vine.  The Marine Environmental Protection Committee this year merely “reaffirmed the previous agreement that non-binding technical guidelines designed to reduce the incidental introduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping, be developed as a means to reduce the potential adverse impacts of this noise on marine life. The Committee agreed to keep this item on its agenda for MEPC 64.”  It appears that the Ship Design and Equipment Subcommittee has been charged with the task of drafting the voluntary guidelines, but their report makes no mention of this work.

During the 2000’s, NOAA made great strides in acknowledging the central role that shipping noise plays in any consideration of ocean noise management; it were these efforts that led to the initial impetus to get the IMO, which regulates global shipping, to begin to address it.  It’s sad to see how easily such efforts can lose steam.  Perhaps we can take heart from a statement made by IMO spokeswoman Natasha Brown after the release of a study this spring that linked stress levels in whales to ocean noise: “The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO, when it meets for its 63rd session, will review a number of submissions relating to noise from commercial shipping and its adverse impact on marine life.  The MEPC has previously agreed on a need to develop non-binding, technical guidelines and consider solutions to reduce the incidental introduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping, so the issue is very much on the IMO’s agenda and governments are welcome to submit relevant information and/or report to MEPC.” While it appears that the MEPC did not actively engage the issue this year, it is indeed still on their radar, though perhaps not as brightly as it was a few years back.

For more on the glory days of efforts to address shipping noise, see the AEI’s Ocean Noise 2009 Special Report, pages 18-23.

Tehachapi area braces for wind energy expansion

Human impacts, News, Wildlands, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

Kern County, CA, surrounding Bakersfield and straddling the mountains and the Mojave desert, is home to one of the more iconic wind farms of the first round of the US wind industry.  Just east of Tehachapi, over 5000 turbines were built during the 1980s and ’90s.


Now, faced with a slew of new wind projects, the Kern County Planning Department is working double-time to find a way to manage the future build-out of wind (and solar) development in the region.  This week, county planners began hosting meetings at which the latest planning maps are being presented for public comment.  Fourteen new wind farms have already gained approval for construction within the proposed Wind Inclusion Areas, with three others awaiting permits.  

Teh new plansOn the map to the left, yellow represents the existing development pictured above, and the other colors each represent a new development. For those living within this roughly 11 x 17 mile Wind Inclusion Area, the prospect is daunting.  April Biglay, a local activist who’s been encouraging the county to proceed with caution, attended the first meeting, and said, “I think it’s bittersweet. I think the county is making a huge effort to get under control the production of wind energy. At least the studies are in. At least they are looking at these areas, I mean it’s better than nothing.” 

Some landowners who live outside the designated wind zones are frustrated that the county may, in effect, preclude future wind development outside of areas where it’s already well-established.  Phil Wyman, one such landowner, says, “The only difference between us and the people who got permitted is that they did it yesterday and we want to do it today or tomorrow.”


Looking at the big picture, the Wind Inclusion Zones (the lighter areas on the map to the right) represent a small portion of the sprawling county, though arguably a substantial portion of the transition zone between the mountains and desert.  A much larger “Proposed Kern County Wind Resource Area” was released in draft form at similar meetings late last year; the new maps retain the southern portion of that Resource Area, but greatly reduce the northern extent of wind development.

Kern County is in an especially intense version of the local decisions being faced by communities in many parts of the country.  Local opposition to wind expansion is based on many factors, including dominating the landscape and concerns about wildlife, especially raptors.  For those living in the Inclusion Area, noise is a significant concern; neighbors of current wind projects in the area say that turbines are commonly audible to a mile or more, and under the new proposals, many more people in what has been a quiet, remote landscape will be living within earshot.  

At the same time, military exclusion zones, fire hazard areas, existing parks and national monuments, and other factors combine to limit wind and solar development to a small portion of the area in which they might otherwise make economic or energy-production sense (ie areas of reliably high winds or bright sun).  There are no easy answers to questions about how best to balance energy production against local impacts; Kern County offers an especially vivid sense of the tensions involved, with its creation of virtual sacrifice zones that, while not huge in the grand scheme, are large enough to impact many residents.

For more info:
Kern County powerpoint presentation (pdf version)
Inclusion/Exclusion zone detail map
Full county map 
Two local environmental groups fighting wind expansion 
A local economic development group supporting renewable energy projects

Sound design for TV sports: fascinating article and BBC radio show

Arts, News Comments Off on Sound design for TV sports: fascinating article and BBC radio show

And now for something quite different: two features about creating/composing the sound design for TV sports.  At the London Olympics, Dennis Baxtor drew from 4000 microphones, working with 600 sound technicians to sculpt the sound into a more-than-real sonic experience.  Alexis Madrigal offers up a good concise overview of his work for The Atlantic, including a couple of compelling examples (catching the flight of arrows in archery, and laying in previously-recorded oar strokes in rowing).  

If that piques your interest, head on over to Vimeo to listen to a full hour-long radio documentary featuring Baxtor’s work, along with a couple of his peers, including Bill Whiston, sound supervisor at Wimbleton, who sums it up nicely:  “I love atmosphere.  That is my job as far as I’m concerned.  It’s the atmosphere that you generate that makes people be there.”

And for the middle ground, here’s an extended written piece by the Peregrine Andrews, producer of the BBC show, which includes several audio examples.

German offshore wind construction aims to limit noise impact on porpoises

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Wind turbines Comments Off on German offshore wind construction aims to limit noise impact on porpoises

Aggressive offshore wind energy plans in Germany are pioneering innovative new approaches to reducing the noise impacts of wind turbine construction, according to a recent Bloomberg News article.  It’s a good, long piece, well worth a read.  A few highlights:

“Quite a large proportion of our sea area will probably be used for offshore wind farms,” said Hans-Ulrich Rosner, head of the Wadden Sea Office for WWF in Germany. “This will have a serious impact on nature, which needs to be mitigated.”  Harbor porpoises, common in the North and Baltic Seas, appear to be especially sensitive to noise, adding to the challenges. 

Construction of the 108 MW Riffgat offshore wind project is nearing completion; it’s been utilizing a double-walled, water-filled casing in which bubbles are produced to absorb some of the sound from pile-driving of the turbine foundations into the seabed.  In addition, a less intense vibration method is being used for almost half the depth of the piles, with the louder hammering of classic pile driving being used for only the last 40 meters.  These noise reduction techniques amount to half of one percent of the total cost of the wind farm.

Germany’s Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, or BSH, has set a noise limit of 160 decibels for 750 metres around offshore wind construction work. Developers regularly overshoot the limit, which is not applied to detonating old bombs, the BSH’s Christian Dahlke said.  “Our regulations are creating a new industry,” Dahlke said. “If environmental rules to protect animal life are tightened in other countries as well, our companies may even export these technologies.”

At the Nordsee Ost project, a large hose perforated to produce a curtain of air bubbles around each of the 48 turbine foundations to absorb the noise from pile driving, which “brought the noise level much closer” to the 160 decibel cap.  But RWE, a utility involved in the project, said that more research and development is needed “to meet the limit reliably in the future.”

New paper quantifies shipping noise impact on whale communication space

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science Comments Off on New paper quantifies shipping noise impact on whale communication space

The latest paper to be published by the research team that’s been studying noise levels in and around the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary concludes that in the waters off Boston, increasing shipping noise has reduced the area over which whales can hear each other to about one-third of what it used to be.

“We had already shown that the noise from an individual ship could make it nearly impossible for a right whale to be heard by other whales,” said Christopher Clark, Ph.D., director of Cornell’s bioacoustics research program and a co-author of the work. “What we’ve shown here is that in today’s ocean off Boston, compared to 40 or 50 years ago, the cumulative noise from all the shipping traffic is making it difficult for all the right whales in the area to hear each other most of the time, not just once in a while. Basically, the whales off Boston now find themselves living in a world full of our acoustic smog.”

Below: Ship tracks for one month, in and out of Boston; Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary outlined in white, bottom-mounted recording units in yellow. (Graphics from NOAA’s Passive Acoustic Monitoring website)

Sb nopp ais tracks

“A good analogy would be a visually impaired person, who relies on hearing to move safely within their community, which is located near a noisy airport,” said Leila Hatch, Ph.D., NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary marine ecologist. “Large whales, such as right whales, rely on their ability to hear far more than their ability to see. Chronic noise is likely reducing their opportunities to gather and share vital information that helps them find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.”

Nine hours in Stellwagen:

Sbnms nopp ani

Kathy Metcalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America said her group has no doubt noise is increasing and affecting the whales. But measures such as slowing down ships or retrofitting them with new, more efficient propellers are costly and may not even work, she said. A better remedy would be devising and incorporating quieter designs in the hulls and propellers of new vessels.  “We’re kind of a slow industry,” Metcalf said. “But the bottom line is if we could do something now that can be used as guidelines for new construction, 15 years from now, half the world’s fleet would have already been built that way.”

Bonus:  2010 Science magazine audio interview with Leila Hatch, lead author of the new paper.

Listening to the undersea world

Ocean, Science Comments Off on Listening to the undersea world

A great post over on Artemia, a University of British Columbia blog, from Jessi Lehman, reflecting on listening to the LIDO online undersea sound streams.  Go read the whole thing for sure!

A teaser:

…These ocean observatory networks are about science and whale conservation but also about industry, development, and geopolitics.

But I want to come back to the experience of listening. What is it, exactly, that we hear? Mostly just faint static, like the sound of rain falling. Mostly I find myself listening in apprehension, for what could be there. Some would call this kind of undersea listening remote sensing, but it feels more like interspecies or even otherworldly eavesdropping. To be honest, it feels a bit weird. And it’s not just that I’m so far from the ocean, in a place dry and hot and decidedly un-marine. I can’t say that I understand the undersea environment better by listening to these sounds (though I can’t preclude the possibility that on some level I do). Mostly I am made aware that this is a world I don’t know, can’t know, and can only access thanks to complex technological mediations – and even then only marginally. This makes the experience of listening even stranger.

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes “to be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning”…

Quite of few of the posters on Artemia seem to be giving a lot of consideration to sound.  Of special note is this project preview from a student who’s right now on the central coast of British Columbia aiming to bring some of Steve Feld’s ideas about acoustemology into the underwater world of cetacean sound-making:

My project puts the concept to work at a whale research laboratory, Cetacea Lab, located on a remote island in Caamaano Sound, Northern, BC. Through a seven-week fieldwork residency (August- September 2012), I hope provoke thoughts on how broader knowledges relate to sustained acts of whale listening. In particular, I will pursue two questions 1. how work in acoustemology, hitherto focused on Indigenous encounters in the developing world, can be challenged and extended by an outdoor laboratory science setting, (Feld, 1996, 2003; Daniels, 2008; Maxwell, 2008; Ramnarine, 2009); 2. to understand how Cetacea Lab’s activities produce an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

The central actors of the pilot study are the scientists who conduct Cetacea Lab’s activities. Since 2001, Cetacea Lab scientists have been monitoring whale activity through a network of radio-linked hydrophones, remote observation, and boat-based surveys. Every summer, their efforts are supplemented by two groups of volunteers (5-7 per group), who live at Cetacea Lab for 6-8 week periods (May-July; late July-September). These volunteers provide crucial support for the monitoring activities required during ‘peak’ times of cetacean activity: In late summer especially, Caamano Sound, and neighbouring Campania Sound and Whale Channel play host to an array of migratory and resident fin, humpback, and killer whales variously involved in annual mating, feeding, and socializing… (Ford et al, 1989, 2007). Hearing all the complex sonic activity generated by these creatures is perhaps the most pronounced feature of daily life at Cetacea Lab…

Turbine sound studies coming soon in two Massachusetts towns

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines Comments Off on Turbine sound studies coming soon in two Massachusetts towns

Two small wind farm projects in southeastern Massachusetts that have stirred neighbor complaints about noise over the past several months will be tested for compliance with state noise limits.  Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rules require that noise sources increase existing noise levels by no more than 10dB.  This summer, one of the turbines in nearby Falmouth was found to sometimes exceed that difference at night, and was temporarily shut down except for some daytime sound testing periods. Both Falmouth turbines remain off at night, and are now operating during the day.

In Kingston, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (CEC) will oversee the sounds tests, and in Fairhaven, where over a hundred residents have filed health complaints, the Massachusetts DEP has begun to conduct the tests, as they did in Falmouth. Laurel Carlson of the MassDEP has said she does not expect to find a noise violation in Fairhaven, where existing background sounds should be higher.  “In the middle of the night it was 29 decibels (in Falmouth) — we call that national park quiet,” she said. “We’re not expecting to find that level of quiet in Fairhaven or any other community.”

UPDATE, 8/10/12:  Good piece in the Boston Globe today recapping the latest noise monitoring developments.

Astonishing bowhead whale song diversity discovered

Bioacoustics, Science 1 Comment »

FramWhen a University of Washington researcher listened to the audio picked up by a recording device that spent a year in the icy waters off the east coast of Greenland, she was stunned at what she heard: whales singing a remarkable variety of songs nearly constantly for five wintertime months.  In a paper just published in the journal Endangered Species Research, and freely available online, Kate Stafford and her co-authors report on acoustic monitoring that took place in the winter of 2008-9 in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Spitzbergen, a key channel for water circulation between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.  

Quite unexpectedly, Stafford found that bowhead whales were singing “almost constantly from the end of November until early March,” with over 60 distinct songs being recorded during these months of deep winter darkness.  It is presumed that these were mating calls, as are the famous humpback whale songs.  However, the researchers stress:

The song diversity noted here is unprecedented for baleen whales. Whether individual singers display 1, multiple, or even all call types, the size of the song repertoire for Spitsbergen bowheads in 2008 to 2009 is remarkable and more closely approaches that of songbirds than other baleen whales.

Also fascinating is the stark difference in types of calls in the two recording locations.  The diverse and continuous singing took place under “a dense canopy of ice cover, (which) may provide a better acoustic habitat for the transmission and reception of song when compared to loose pack ice.” Lead author Kate Stafford notes, “It’s clear there’s a habitat preference. As Arctic sea ice declines, there may be some places like this that are important to protect in order to preserve a breeding ground for the bowhead whales.” 

Download the paper
Read a summary of the work from University of Washington
Listen to a couple of sound samples