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5th vote in Dixfield retains embattled wind ordinance

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ME Timberwinds~Dixfield-2mi simulationYou really need to have a history degree to keep track of the twists and turns in the 4-years-and-counting Dixfield Wind Energy Saga. Ever since the adoption of a wind ordinance in 2012, local citizens, Planning Board, and Selectmen in this Maine town have been proposing revisions that have been rejected by voters.  The 2012 ordinance, which still stands, includes a 2000-foot setback and noise limits in accordance with state standards of 55dB day/42dB night.  In both 2013 and 2015, the updated ordinances contained some stricter standards (both include low-frequency standards and the 2015 one would have doubled the setbacks and lowered the night noise limit to 35dB), but both times the voters narrowly rejected the changes. Local officials have remained concerned that some of the zoning language in the 2012 ordinance is unenforceable, and this spring, they once again took a shot at finding a middle ground by resubmitting the language they liked in the 2015 attempt, but tweaked to return the noise limits to the state standard; as one Planning Board member put it, “The vote on the proposed wind power ordinance has provisions that both sides dislike. Maybe that makes it a reasonable compromise.”  But that, too, failed to win support in a June 2016 vote. These 2012-2016 votes were all narrow victories for the pro-windfarm contingent in town, which maintained that the setbacks would preclude development and the low-frequency noise requirements would require cumbersome monitoring.

Now a 5th vote in November 2016 has once again rejected a change, this time a proposal to simply nullify the 2012 town ordinance and let the state regulate the wind farms, which is now the preferred option by those who want the town to get out of the way and let the wind farm proceed. It was once again very close, 616-642 (14 switched votes would have changed the outcome), and I guess it marks the first loss by the pro-wind group, but no one will be happy with the outcome—local officials still say the 2012 version is unenforceable and advocates for greater local control have repeatedly pushed for more stringent standards.  So the merry-go-round will continue spinning, the gold ring still out of reach for all concerned.

For a recap of the tortured history, click on through to read the post I put together in June 2015 recounting the events up till then—including, in fact, a vote recount that dramatically overturned the one previous victory by the more cautionary contingent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ocean listening stations sprouting around US

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NOAA NRS_Stations_plus Cordell BankA new network of long-term acoustic monitoring stations is being deployed by NOAA-funded researchers in ocean waters from Massachusetts to the Arctic and Samoa. The Ocean Noise Reference Station (ONRS) Network represents the next step in data collection for NOAA, which has increased its focus on ocean noise in recent years.

Agencies, researchers, and NGOs are all concerned about the effects of chronic moderate noise on whales, seals, and fish (along with crustaceans and even eggs and larvae).  NOAA’s ocean noise mapping project is a big step forward, but it’s largely based on modeling of known ship and seismic survey activity.  Actual recordings made at sea by various researchers serve as “ground-truthing” for these models; early indications have been that the models are pretty good, usually within 5-10dB of actual recorded levels.

The ONRS network takes acoustic monitoring another step forward by deploying identical equipment in many regions, thus collecting “consistent and comparable multi-year acoustic data sets covering all major regions of the U.S.”  In addition to getting a better idea of regional differences (and consistencies), researchers will be investigating “how the ‘soundscapes’ at each of these sites changes, i.e. does it become noisier, are there more or less biological sounds, and is there a dramatic shift in the species present?”  All this will feed into NOAA’s ten-year effort to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy.

cordellThe most recent deployment took place this fall at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast near San Francisco (it’s not even on the maps on the NOAA site yet, though I added it above as NRS11).  The hydrophone deployment mission (right) received substantial funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), along with the ongoing NOAA support for data collection and analysis.  Cordell Bank is one of the richest foraging grounds for marine mammals, thanks to an upwelling of cold water that attracts a wide range of species to feed.  At the same time, many of the thousands of ships traveling from Asia to ports in San Francisco Bay and further south along the California coast pass close enough that their “acoustic footprint” extends into the Sanctuary.  This can, at the very least, make it harder for whales or fish to hear each other as well as they’re used to, limiting the area over which they can communicate and causing them to raise their voices.  There are also indication that some species expend energy avoiding moderate noise, and that feeding and perhaps mating can be temporarily disrupted.  Most pernicious may be the possibility that living in elevated noise can increase physiological stress, triggering “a suite of negative effects,” according to one of the researchers.

Other research efforts are also adding to our understanding of the effects of shipping noise.  In Canada, Port Metro Vancouver recently deployed a hydrophone to examine the underwater noise from container ships headed into its facilities.  3000 such vessels traverse the waters each year, along with even more ferry transits and various recreational boats.  It’s part of the Port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program. One of its most interesting goals is to zero in on ships that may be unusually loud and in need of some maintenance:

The hope is to establish baseline information to track noise levels and to identify noise levels from specific ships. The results could lead to simple mitigation measures such as hull and propeller cleaning, shore-based financial incentives, and information for regulatory agencies and for naval architects to build quieter ships.

Here’s some more from the researchers on that project.

And in the Bering Sea, acoustic monitoring is providing important baseline data on marine mammal presence, which will play into any future oil and gas development, as well as the potential for global shipping to extend into Arctic regions as polar ice melts:

“This passive acoustic monitoring technique allows us to detect the presence of vocalizing marine mammals continuously — 24 hours per day — in all weather conditions, over periods of weeks to months, over distances of 20 to 30 kilometers, and is a proven sampling method in the waters offshore Alaska,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Stafford.

Meanwhile, eavesdropping went on during the summer and fall in the Gulf of Mexico, and plans are being made for a recording network all the way around Antarctica, in some of the world’s most remote and acoustically pristine waters.

We’re listening more closely and widely than we ever have—the next question will be, are we willing to actually do something with what we learn, and find ways to slow or roll back our relentless intrusion into the natural soundscapes of the oceans?

Forest Service to limit snowmobiles to designated trails, areas

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snowmobiles white mountainsTen years after the US Forest Service started requiring off-highway vehicles to stick to designated routes, a similar policy has now been adopted for snowmobiles.  When the OHV policy was developed, much of the concern was on streamside erosion and damage to meadows, so similar limitations were not considered as important for vehicles traveling over snow.  However, from the start, cross-country skiers and snowshoers pushed for limits to snowmobiles, as well, stressing the impact of motor noise, which can travel far across mountain basins in otherwise very quiet landscapes.  In recent decades, as snowmobiles have become more powerful, remote high-country snowfields popular with skiers have been attracting more snowmobiles as well.

Now, the Forest Service will require each National Forest to designate specific areas for snowmobile use.  Unlike OHVs, which are generally limited to trails and roads (with modest excursions off roads allowed for hunters), the snowmobile rule allows extensive areas to be opened to snowmobiles.  While generally very pleased with the new policy, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (a leading quiet recreation advocacy group) expressed concerns that this areas can be nearly as large as a ranger district.

Over 40% of National Forests that get consistent snow cover already manage snowmobiles as required under the new rule, so nothing will change there.  In other forests, user groups have collaborated to achieve similar ends:

“About four years ago, we worked with snowmobile groups to reach an understanding about riding areas near Stevens Peak,” said John Latta of Spokane, co-founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance. “The people that sit down with us have gray hair and like to ride the trails. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s needs.”

Still, some riders have broken these informal agreements, so the new rules will help alleviate such problems.  Snowmobile groups tend to support the measures as well; Paul Turcke, a lawyer who works with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said “We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users.  We hope this is a step in the right direction.”

Sandia workshop highlights new understanding of turbulence in wind farms

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A long, detailed article in Windpower Engineering provides a fascinating look at current efforts to understand the complex wind flows in and around wind farms.  Recent research at NREL, Sandia National Laboratory, and Texas Tech is highlighted in the article, which also includes several compelling graphic representations of the patterns of turbine wakes inside wind farms.  For the first time, researchers are now able to measure wind speed and direction in three dimensions in working wind farms, using multiple dopplar radar units; this data has led to new and far more detailed computer models that can be used to investigate how small changes in turbine operations may reduce stresses on downwind turbines.

Read the whole thing at the link above; here are a few teasers:

“It’s almost as if we added a dye into the wind that changes color with speed,” says Moriarty, commenting on the video he presented. “The images show high winds in red or hot colors, and slower winds speeds in blue, and how well downstream turbines are working.

What has been known for a while, he says, is that under certain atmospheric conditions, turbines are getting beat up by what’s called a mildly stable atmosphere. “Even though this has been known for a while, we don’t know exactly what is happening in the flow that influences damage events” says Moriarty.

Although tuning a wind plant is difficult, Moriarty’s simulations suggest adjustments. “We have run several simulations, for example, that de-rate (reduce the power) the first row to let more energy through. That works under some conditions. And then there’s wake steering, moving a wake. Changing the yaw on one or more turbines allows controlling where the wake flows, ideally away from downstream turbines. Depending on yaw angle, results show a 4.5% increase in energy capture.”

UPDATE, 10/17/13: Here’s more on turbulence research, this time in India, where the Tamil Nadu province has some insane turbine densities (check out the image at the link; note the 2km bar at the bottom right).

Foghorn requiem sounds in UK

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Time for a bit of good ol’ classic acoustic ecology: honoring local soundmarks by way of eclectic composition!  In Tyne and Wear, one of England’s lingering foghorns became the centerpiece of a composition that also included a brass band on the lighthouse and ship horns in the harbor.

As one local chimed in, “I was there and found the sounds to be very emotive… I used to live at Marsden and the sound of the foghorn meant my father and other family members would be safe at sea. Thank you to ALL who helped create a magical, once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Here’s a taste:

Vermont wind farm noise issues continue

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The Burlington Free Press ran an article this week that is perhaps the most comprehensive look at the emerging noise issues around Vermont’s two largest wind farms, in Sheffield and Lowell/Albany.  The problems at the Sheffield Wind project, which began operations in October 2011, are interesting, in that some residents live within earshot of I-91, yet have found that the sounds made by turbines 3/4 mile away are far harder to live with. (I, too, live about a mile from an interstate, hearing noise levels that are roughly the same as those I’d hear from turbines at that distance.)  A retired Air Force pilot says that the turbines remind him of a jet at 10,000 feet that never goes away.

Both projects must comply with state regulations that call for maximum sound levels of 45dB outside homes, and 30dB inside homes; quarterly monitoring at four locations is required as well.  The first year of monitoring at the Sheffield Wind project affirmed that it’s operating in compliance, though at least one monitoring location was close enough to the interstate that some have questioned its usefulness. 

The article highlights some of the challenges facing neighbors, as well as state regulators and wind farm operators.  For starters, we may again be seeing that turbine sounds of 40-45dB can be more bothersome than has been assumed, especially for people who, like one couple in the article, moved to the area “for its beauty and peace.”  Also, short-term sound monitoring may not occur at the times when the noise is most troublesome; the noise issues may not be solely related to wind speed and direction, but could also be affected by the level of inflow turbulence or other atmospheric conditions.  The article does not clarify how many complaints have been received around the Sheffield Wind project, but notes that 28 households have lodged formal complaints since the turbines on Lowell Mountain began operations in November.

A noise-reduction mode is available on the Lowell Mountain turbines, and Green Mountain Power is working to learn when it should be triggered.  Both sound testing and complaints from neighbors will inform that learning process.  “These noise issues are relatively new for us,” said Geoff Commons, director of public advocacy with the state Public Service Department. “We’re trying to figure out what the problem is. We’re trying to help.”

CA Coastal Commission denies seismic survey permit

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The California Coastal Commission has rejected plans by Pacific Gas and Electric to conduct a seismic survey later this month to gain better understanding of earthquake faults near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.  The CCC vote affirmed staff recommendations that the information gained did not justify the likely effects on ocean life.

DiabloTracksThe survey would have included about nine days worth of airgun activity; the airguns fire bursts of pressurized air up to four times per minute.  The sound created by the burst of air is loud enough to penetrate deep into the ocean floor, with echoes revealing geological information. The project’s environmental assessment documents project that the sound could be audible for up to 60 miles alongshore, and 150 miles offshore; sound loud enough to trigger behavioral changes extends for 2-3 miles, and sound loud enough to cause injury extends to about a half mile. The survey tracks (purple and blue above) come within a mile or so of one corner of a Marine Protected Area (orange outline above).

While most local species would be minimally affected (less than one percent of regional stock hearing sounds loud enough to trigger behavioral reactions), the potential impact on harbor porpoises were a sticking point for the CCC—75% of the local stock was expected to experience some level of behavioral change. (Ed. note: Harbor porpoises are known to be more sensitive to noise than many species; some environmental assessments extend the behavioral impact zone for them out to the audibility distance; I’m not sure if that was done here, but it would seem plausible, given the much higher proportion of the regional population expected to be affected.) Though PG&E said that any negative effects were likely to be minor and temporary (and NMFS agreed, in issuing draft federal Incidental Harassment Authorization in September). The CCC disagreed, in part because PG&E has already established that the Diablo Canyon plant can survive nearby earthquakes; some CCC members spoke in favor of simply closing the plant when it’s up for license renewal, which would negate the need for further earthquake study.

“These tests are not going to do us any good in terms of protecting the public welfare,” said Commissioner Jana Zimmer. “And on the other side of it, the impacts on the marine environment are very clear and I think have been understated.”

For more detailed coverage, see articles from the Santa Cruz Sentinel/San Jose Mercury News and The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune.  The most recent project description from PG&E is here; and the NMFS draft IHA includes tables detailing the projected numbers of animals to be affected.

Insects change calls to be heard above road noise

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Insects have joined birds, frogs, and whales in the list of species that change their calls so that they can be heard above chronic human noise.  Researchers at the University of Bielefeld in Germany compared the songs of grasshoppers that lived near a road with those living in open grassland;  “We found that grasshoppers from noisy habitats boost the volume of the lower-frequency part of their song, which makes sense since road noise can mask signals in this part of the frequency spectrum,” said Ulrike Lampe, the lead researcher.

“Increased noise levels could affect grasshopper courtship in several ways. It could prevent females from hearing male courtship songs properly, prevent females from recognising males of their own species, or impair females’ ability to estimate how attractive a male is from his song,” she said.

Read more in this article from The Independent

Your donation will help AEI attend key meetings this fall

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If you find that AEI’s coverage of sound-related environmental issues is useful, unique, or otherwise of value, please consider making a donation this fall.

I’ve been asked to present at two key conferences this fall and early winter, and AEI’s normal budget doesn’t cover travel, food, and hotel expenses.  In late November, budget permitting, I will attend the 9th Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting, where my poster presentation will provide the meeting’s only overview of ongoing research and policy work relating to the effects of noise on wildlife.  A couple weeks later, I’m off to Orlando for Renewable Energy World North America, where I’m co-hosting a session and doing a talk on the various ways that the wind industry is working to understand and address wind turbine noise concerns.  Next week, I head to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Lubbock on my own dime; I’m exploring the possibility of returning to my roots as a freelance writer, in part to seed acoustic ecology ideas into broader public awareness.

A few hundred dollars in donations this month will make a huge difference in making these conference trips possible.  Please consider contributing to this year’s AEI outreach budget!

To make a donation:

Or mail a donation to Acoustic Ecology Institute, 45 Cougar Canyon, Santa Fe, NM  87508

Thank you!

Follow SOCAL D-tag and controlled exposure field work at SEABlog

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SOCAL BRS tagging from sideAs usual, Brandon Southall is posting regularly from sea as his research team begins the third year of a five year Behavioral Response Study off the coast of southern California.  The field work is largely focused on conducting controlled exposure experiments (CEE) on a fairly wide variety of species, in order to learn more about how each species responds to various types of sounds.  Animals are approached in zodiacs in order to attach Dtags (temporary suction-cup tags that record sounds heard and produced by the animal, as well as detailed three-dimensional dive patterns) or one of several other types of tags; once the tag has been on long enough for the animal to relax after that tagging approach, a larger ship maneuvers in to position and transmits sequence of test sounds.  So far, test sounds have been a simulated mid-frequency active sonar signal (peaking at 25dB quieter than the Navy uses) and a pseudo-random noise stimulus. For background on this year’s study objectives, see the SOCAL-12 informational webpage.

In addition, researchers on the cruise pursue other related studies, including ongoing visual observation surveys, tests of new acoustic monitoring systems, and trials of new research methodologies for monitoring behavior of non-tagged animals for possible future exposure studies. A summary of last year’s field work can be downloaded at the SOCAL-11 website; SOCAL-11 succeeded in attaching 38 tags of four different types on 35 individuals of four different marine mammal species. For the suction cup acoustic/position tags used in SOCAL?11 (not including the satellite tags), this resulted in nearly 200 hours of tag data across these individuals, the majority resulting from Dtag deployments.  Thirteen complete CEE sequences were conducted, involving 13 blue whales, 4 Risso’s dolphins, and 1 Cuvier’s beaked whale. Preliminary analysis of dive patterns suggest that blue whales and Risso’s dolphins showed little response to the sounds (though the dolphins were resting at the surface during the CEEs; deep diving behavior has not been taking place during CEE’s so far), while the beaked whale showed “a similar relatively strong response at low received level (ed. note: peak of 135-140dB re 1 uPa, with behavioral response initiated when the signal was not much above background ambient) as was observed in SOCAL-10.”

Salmon shortage stresses orcas more than boat noise

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A new research study of stress hormones in Puget Sound orcas shows that the whales actually were under less stress at times of higher vessel traffic – at least when their key food source, chinook salmon, was abundant.  Only when salmon were scarce did boat noise seem to increase stress levels.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he wasn’t surprised by this, noting that there were far more orcas years ago when there were also more fishing boats, with the whales not seeming to mind the boats’ presence.

Sam Wasser, director of University of Washington’s Department of Biology Center for Conservation Biology, said the study points to the importance of putting fish first as managers look for the priority management steps, amid reducing toxins and pollution, vessel noise and improving food supply, for orca recovery.

“If you are a manager, you really want to know what are the relative importance of those, and how do they interact, and our study did that; it found that fish are the most important,” Wasser said.

Ed. note: While these results confirm what most have long known, that declining salmon runs are the major factor in recent orca declines, it’s also worth noting that during times when salmon are less abundant, boat noise did increase stress levels in the orcas.  While perhaps a secondary factor, boat noise remains a chronic feature of orca life, with measurable changes in stress at times when food is not abundant.  This supports the initiatives underway in recent years to try to moderately reduce noise and other impacts by requiring whale watching boats to stay farther from whales.  Earlier research has also suggested that foraging for salmon in boat noise may cost whales more energy than foraging in quieter conditions.

Oregon county approves wind farm within its 2-mile setback

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The Umatilla County Commission approved construction of a 33-turbine wind farm, rejecting a citizens’ challenge of the recent OK given by the County Planning Commission. In June, Umatilla County enacted a 2-mile setback provision for new wind farms, but the Chopin Wind Project application was submitted in April, so was not subject to the new rules.  The 2-mile limit is at least twice that used in other Oregon counties.

The County says the Chopin Wind Project, which will be built using 3MW turbines, will be subject to Oregon’s state noise standard of 36dB; another Oregon county recently decided not to enforce this limit (the state delegated enforcement to the counties years ago). The 36dB limit tends to lead to setbacks of about a half mile or so, depending on terrain and other factors used in modeling likely sound propagation.

AEI commentary on Wisconsin Gov wind plan featured on Renewable Energy World

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Check out the Renewable Energy World front page today, and you’ll find a commentary I submitted over the weekend featured there. If it fades off the front page, here’s the direct link.

New oil platform in Sakhalin grey whale feeding grounds?

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After years of “collaborative” work with environmental groups, the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company continues to push aggressive development plans in an oil and gas field off the coast of Sakhalin Island, where the last 130 critically endangered Northern Pacific grey whales come to feed each summer and fall. This week, Sakhalin Energy announced plans to build a third oil platform in the area, even though it had previously decided two were enough, thanks to advances in drilling technology that allows one platform to serve several wells.

“We are astonished by the announcement from Sakhalin Energy that it intends to build a third platform,” said Wendy Elliott, Species Program Manager, WWF-International.  “The company’s own detailed assessments concluded previously that two platforms would be preferable, both for environmental reasons and for the efficiency of the operation.”

Previously, Sakhalin Energy has cooperated with WWF and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has organized a panel of scientists to make recommendations about how the oil development can minimize impacts on the whales.  BP and Exxon, by contrast, have proceeded with development activities without consulting the panel.

See previous AEI News coverage of Sakhalin oil and gas development.

AEI helps edit National Geo ocean noise piece

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A few months back, I was contacted by an editor at National Geographic, asking me to fact-check a short piece they were preparing on ocean noise (the author, who I’d talked to a few times, had recommended me). The piece came out this week in print and online, and I’m pleased to say that my input turned out to be important: besides affirming a couple of factual points they were concerned about, I caught what would have been a major mistake in an editor’s attempt to shorten a section of the original text, which had seriously mangled the science behind one of the key the findings in the research they are addressing. Just another day in office here at AEI, where I’m able to respond to questions and queries from anyone needing some clarification, whether an international publication, a county commissioner trying to understand wind farms sound, or a curious individual wondering how to pursue an interest in acoustic ecology….

Read the National Geographic piece, with typically great graphics, here.

Navy looks to “Continuous Active Sonar” for anti-sub protection, less impact on whales

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While it looks like it’s been on the drawing board since at least 2004, today I ran across a news report on what appears to be an increasingly well-defined plan to outfit surface ships with a new Continuous Active Sonar (CAS) system.  In the face of what is perceived as an increasing threat from quiet subs, along with the increasing costs of compliance with environmental regulations that now govern current sonar systems (primarily the mid-frequency active sonar deployed on hundreds of ships, along with gradually increasing use of low-frequency active sonar on two US and a few UK ships), research and development efforts are turning toward the possibility of using a continuous, lower power sonar system to protect Naval vessels.

The sinking of a South Korean vessel, along with the embarrassing appearance of a Chinese sub that surfaced, undetected, within firing range of a US aircraft carrier group in 2006, has highlighted the gaps in detection that are inevitable using a sonar surveillance system that is only activated at times.  While none of the news or technical pages that I found specified the projected source level or frequency range of the new CAS system, one of its benefits was repeatedly claimed to be that it would broadcast at a lower power level, thus reducing impacts on marine species.  It sounds like they would trade the drawbacks of high sound levels for the different but not insignificant effects of adding more continuous background noise to the ocean environment.  One of the rarely-noted factors that may well contribute to the behavioral responses seen in reaction to the the current generation of mid-frequency active sonar is the chaotic, and quite disturbing, nature of the sound source; this is sometimes referred to as the kurtosis of the sound (how many sharp or abrupt elements there are in the sound itself, including sudden rise times rather than more rounded sine-like changes in intensity that are heard in most naturally-produced sounds).  If there is to be a new generation of continuously-broadcasting sonars, let us hope that the sounds themselves are more closely modeled on naturally-occuring sound patterns.

For more on the Continuous Active Sonar system, see:
The recent news report, about research at Alion Science and Technology in Mystic, CT
These two pages from Signal Systems Corporation, also researching the system
A recent Congressional earmark for research
This 2006 news report on a Signal Systems contract that mentions CAS
A September 2009 Navy powerpoint presentation on advanced development plans for undersea systems, which includes a slide on CAS

Ocean Conservation Research has been studying the implications of kurtosis and rise times to ocean noise sources, especially sonar.  For more, see this research page, and especially these two papers and this audio-video demonstration.

Check out these sound recording workshops: Amazon and Sierra

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So, you enjoy delving deeply into listening to the natural world.  You may have begun doing some recording; you may be a radio journalist or an artist for whom sound is an important tangential interest.  Or you may be a composer/recordist who’s been working with sound for years.  For any and all of you who fit these bills, I wanted to clue you in about two upcoming workshops you might find enticing:

In June, the Nature Sounds Society hosts its 25th Annual Field Workshop, at the San Francisco State University Field Station at Yuba Pass in the Sierra.  This year, in addition to the traditional fare of dawn chorus recording/listening trips and afternoon and evening talks (this year with Gordon Hempton, John Muir Laws, and Gina Farr), they’re offering an overnight excursion far enough away from roads to assure a mechanical-noise-free experience.  For more on this trip, which I’ve done twice, see the NSS website.

For the more adventurous, Francisco Lopez’ Mamori Sound Project is hosting its 6th Annual Workshop/Residency for sound artists and composers, taking place as always at Mamori Lake in the Brazilian Amazon in November.  This two-week residency  involves theoretical/discussion presentations, field work and studio work, with a special focus on creative approaches to the work with field recordings, through an extensive exploration of natural sound environments.  Individual and collaborative project will result.  To hear more about this unique program, see the Mamori Sound Project web page, which includes a video and many photos and comments from previous participants.

Right whale gives birth about 10 miles from proposed Undersea Warfare Training Range

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A whale surveying team enjoyed a rare sight yesterday, as a right whale gave birth as they watched from a small plane.  It was only the second time that a birth had been observed in this species, but the excitement was tempered a bit by the fact that it took place about ten miles from the border of the contentious Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) being planned by the Navy off the Florida coast.  Navy planners have assumed that most whales would be in the designated critical habitat closer to shore, and about 30 miles from the USWTR–still close enough to hear sonar, and perhaps slightly affect behavior, but far enough that relatively few whales would likely react.  The Navy knew that some whales could be closer or even in the range at times, but this is the first dramatic encounter so close to the range.  An article in the Florida Times-Union provides a good sense of the excitement, and the concerns:

The Florida-Georgia coast is the only known calving ground for right whales, which gather each winter after traveling from New England and Canada. From a total population of about 450, more than 100 whales migrated to the area this winter. Environmental advocates, who have warned that ship traffic and sonar use at the training range could imperil the whales, said the discovery reinforces their concerns. “The Navy needs to go back to square one and reconsider,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States. The group is one of several that sued in January to challenge the training range plans.

Although whales are usually reported in shallow waters closer to shore, the Navy’s range project manager said some were expected to be in and around the training area. “The fact that there’s a birth was something a little unexpected. We all agree it’s a good thing,” said Jene Nissen, the project manager. He said the discovery would become part of a body of research that will factor into decisions about use of the range that is planned about 50 nautical miles – 58 miles – east of Jacksonville.

As outlined in preliminary plans issued last year, the Navy has agreed to slow its ships during the months that right whales are in the region, in order to minimize the risk of ship strikes, but so far it has rebuffed options that include setting the annual sonar training schedule so as to also avoid those months.   Up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises are planned per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each).  See these earlier posts for more details.

Hawaii humpback sanctuary management review beginning now: will noise be on the table?

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The Hawaiian Islands Humback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is beginning a review of its management plan, and ocean noise activists are pushing for sanctuary managers to bring noise issues to the forefront.  The Sanctuary was established in 1992 to help protect the humpback whale winter nursery grounds in shallow waters around several of the islands.

Beginning this month, and continuing through the spring, Sanctuary managers are hosting a series of pre-scoping “working group” meetings on several islands, which are designed to gather input from various interest groups, especially those who have not been involved in Sanctuary planning in the past.  Some time this summer, a formal scoping period is expected to initiate the process of assessing and likely revising the current management plan. See the Sanctuary Management Plan Newsletter for more on this process.

The Maui Weekly ran an article this week in which several ocean noise campaigners expressed their hopes that this process might lead to more formal protection from noise pollution sources, including boats and Navy sonar training. Dr. Marcia Green of the Ocean Mammal Institute and International Ocean Noise Coalition said it’s “imperative” that the Sanctuary follow Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Marine Spatial Planning: Getting real about ocean zoning

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As the Obama administration moves toward completion of its ocean policy and planning blueprint, it’s becoming clear that the new kid on the block has grown into a dynamic young adult, ready to change the shape of ocean planning forever.  Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is taking a central role in the ocean task force’s work, and a recent symposium on MSP put together by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries offers a great introduction to the power of this approach. At its root is a simple idea, one we’re very familiar with after decades of zoning on land: let’s identify which areas offer the best opportunities for fulfilling each of our goals and needs in the sea, then use this information to focus each activity in areas where it will have the least cumulative impact on other priorities.  Where are the regions most important for each species’ reproduction and feeding?  Which areas have the best possibilities for wind energy?  Where is shipping concentrated?  How about recreational diving and near-shore boating?  Navy training, underwater cables, key fishing grounds, and all other ocean uses are mapped into layers, from which we can make informed choices about where to focus each activity.

The link above will take you to a page from which you can see the full agenda and topics considered at the symposium; I found the following three presentations to be especially useful in getting a sense of this new field:

Steven Murawski, Ecosystem Goal Team Leader for NOAA, offered a good overview of the science and planning elements that are being developed.  Of special note is the inter-relation between MSP and new “Integrated Ecosystem Assessments,” which can provide much of the data needed to make good choices about how to use each area in MSP.

Charlie Wahl of NOAA’s Marine Protected Areas Center introduced work developing a regional Ocean Uses Atlas for the west coast.  Drawing on both scientific data and workshops at which key stakeholders (fishermen, kayakers, etc.) identify areas most important to them, the Ocean Uses Atlas culminate in maps showing, for example, how many other uses co-exist in areas where offshore wind farms may be built.  The maps show that in some places, up to 17 other uses are trying to co-exist, while there are other places where only one or two other uses target the same area. When combined with wind resources data, wind farms can be targeted for the “holes” in the conflicting uses maps.

Finally, Sally Yozell, Director of Marine Conservation for The Nature Conservancy, presents a national picture, with some extra focus on the east coast. The TNC has taken the initiative of compiling a slew of existing data on biologically rich areas, wind, wave, and tidal energy, and other ocean uses to create first drafts of maps similar to those that the MPA center has developed for the west coast.  (TNC is also actively working on a similar approach to alternative energy siting on land, especially with wind in the midwest.)

UK, Ontario, Wisconsin Latest Battlegrounds on Wind Turbine Siting, Noise, Health

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A lawsuit in Ontario, an EIS in Wisconsin, and a gauntlet thrown down at an industry confab in England are the latest fronts in a global debate over the noise impacts of wind farms sited close to residences.  Most dramatic was the opening plenary at the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) annual conference, where John Prescott, a key player in crafting the Kyoto Protocols, attacked NIMBY opponents and local councils for dramatically slowing the build-out of wind farms in Britain, culminating with the rallying cry, “They’ve had it their way for far too long. So let me tell them loud and clear – it’s not your back yard any more, it’s ours.” Prescott bemoaned the fact that 75% of wind farm applications are being denied, putting the blame as much on local authorities as on vocal opponents; he called for mandates compelling localities to designate some areas as suitable for wind development as a way to break the logjam.  Local authorities shot back that federal renewable energy goals can be met in other ways, and that land protection in local areas is warranted.  Prescott’s attack was cast in class terms, suggesting “squires” were fighting to save their “chocolate box views,” though in many areas it is noise impacts, rather than changing views, that drive the opposition.  In those areas, the issue is not whether to build wind farms, but rather how much buffer to require around homes.  An EIS for the Glacier Hills Wind Park, released in Wisconsin this month, acknowledges that noise is in fact an issue for some wind farm neighbors: “The studies done to date…support the concern that some people do react negatively to wind turbine noise, primarily through annoyance and sleep disturbance.  It is widely accepted that disruption of sleep can lead to other physiological and psychological problems…Although specific sound levels or distances from turbines cannot be directly correlated with these disturbance or annoyance problems, project design and siting should take potential impactcs of turbine noise into account.”  In Ontario, a wind farm plan has been challenged in court by a resident who says that five turbines within 900m (a bit over a half mile) is too many, too close.  “As a father, as a husband, I became very concerned about the welfare of my family,” he told CBC News. “We’re very worried about the possibilities of having industrial wind turbines located so close to our home that it will be harmful.” He wants construction stopped until studies “rule out concerns” about impacts on health, an end-point that is surely not within sight, if even possible within the context of the scientific method. Dr. Robert McMurtry, former dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, who appeared at a media conference yesterday launching the court action, said there are now more than 100 people in Ontario who report suffering health problems due to wind turbine noise. “There’s no authoritative guidelines for the siting of wind turbines because there’s no good evidence as to when they will be safe or not,” McMurtry said, “This is not an acceptable state of affairs when we’re planning to plunge ahead on such a large scale, a tenfold increase in Ontario.”

The debate over wind farm siting is becoming exceedingly tangled, with visual, noise, and health impacts all on the table, and too often blurred by both proponents decrying NIMBYism and opponents with varying degrees of clarity about their fears and concerns.  Prescott makes a potentially valid point when he suggests that in this age of climate crisis, resistance to visual impacts should give way to the greater public good, as it has with cell phone towers and power lines.  Yet the noise impacts are real, and increasingly well-documented within a half mile to a mile—see this fascinating summary of the disconnect between  1.5-2km (a mile-plus) setback guidelines suggested by researchers and health officials responding to noise issues and the much closer setbacks (1000 feet to 550m/1800 feet) actually being implemented by local, state or provincial, and national standards. When concerns about health effects extend beyond just sleep disruption from audible noise, to include effects of inaudible, but still physiologically significant, low frequency noise, things get more nebulous and difficult to either quantify or protect against, since susceptibility to LF noise is more variable from person to person, and LF noise levels are much harder to predict in the landscape.

AEI will soon be focusing more intently on the slew of reports and studies that have come out in recent months, with a goal of organizing the mass of information into something useful for planners, citizens, and those in industry who want to work with residents more constructively.

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 »

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.

NOAA Proposes Doubling of Orca Whalewatching Distance

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NOAA has proposed a doubling of the limit governing how close whalewatching boats may approach endangered orcas in the waters of Puget sound.  Current voluntary guidelines ask boats to remain at least 100 yards from the endangered killer whales, while the proposed new mandatory limit would be 200 yards in most areas, with a half-mile wide “no go” zone in one area heavily used by orcas.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that orcas depend on their sonar to navigate and find food – chiefly salmon. Underwater noise from vessel that are too close interferes with that sonar.  “Vessel noise is going to decrease their ability to seek prey,” said Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society in the San Juan Islands. “This is the right thing to do at the right time. … I think (the proposed rules) are tenable. I think people will support them. I think they are good for the whales,” Gaydos said.  The Bellingham Times spoke toThe owner of one of the longest-operating whale watching outfits responded to the proposal with relative acceptance. “They’re not horrible, they’re not great,” said Drew Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises, “They’re not going to put us out of business.” While Schmidt said he believes whale watch operators are being unfairly singled out, noting that toxins and limited salmon are likely damaging whales more than boat noise, he also observed that whales are attracting a lot more attention today than in years past. Twenty years ago, Schmidt said, he was one of three whale cruise operators. Now there are about 30, with about 50 vessels. The rules include exceptions for working commercial fishery vessels, cargo ships in shipping lanes, residents going to shoreline homes, and research vessels.  Public comments on the new rules are being accepted through October 27, with the hope that they will go into effect next year.

UPDATE: NOAA extended the comment period through Jan 15, and has announced that analysis of the comments will take too long for the new rules to go into effect for the summer 2010 season.  Salmon fishermen have objected to the “no go” zone proposed for the west side of San Juan Island, and tour operators also are urging reconsideration of the 200 yard limit and no go zone.