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Georgia Questions “Considerable Speculation” in Navy sonar range assessment

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The Navy is facing some push-back from the states of Georgia and Florida in the initial stages of gaining the necessary approvals for proceeding with their plans for a 500 square mile training range offshore from Jacksonville.  The Navy had hoped to have the states’ comments in hand by this week, but Florida expects to take several more weeks to assess the Navy’s plan, and the head of Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division submitted comments with fairly strongly worded notes of skepticism regarding the Navy’s just-released Final Environmental Impact Statement:  the letter says that the Navy’s forecasts “require considerable speculation and are insufficient to assess the anticipated impacts.”  Sonar travels differently depending on water conditions, and the Navy hasn’t done real-world measurements off Jacksonville to see whether its models of what will happen are right, said Clay George, a Natural Resources biologist. George also noted that while the designated critical habitat for wintering right whales extends to just 20 miles offshore, biologists have not done much surveying further offshore, and so the whales may well inhabit waters closer to the range.  Because of such shortcomings in the Navy’s analysis,  Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources wants long-term monitoring of how the range affects endangered right whales that raise their calves offshore from the two states each winter.  If the whales were harmed by sonar that would be used in submarine exercises, training at the range should change, the state told Navy officials in a letter last week. (Ed note: the Navy’s analysis does take account of uncertainty about the area inhabited by grey whales in winter by assuming that some will occur even within the training range; however, they also assume that virtually no whales will be affected by sounds traveling into the critical habitat, and they explicitly reject the option of doing less training in winter months when the whales are present. For more on the key question of distant effects of sonar sounds, scroll down to the July 24 post below, or click here to read the earlier post.)

In related news, the Florida Times-Union also reported that the Navy will separate its permit applications for construction and operation of the range.  The Navy expects NOAA approval for construction this week, but does not plan to apply for permits to operate the range until 2012 or 2013.  Likewise, the State of Florida this week announced that it will follow the Navy’s suggestion to similarly  follow a “phased” approach to issuing the necessary permits. In addition to sonar issues, Florida officials agreed to put off final judgments about how fast ships should travel in the training range, whether low-flying helicopters using the range will disturb right whales and how much debris from the training exercises will affect coral and other protected species on the ocean floor.  This may trigger legal challenges, though, as Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the news by saying that the phased approach “artificially separates the impacts to endangered species … that will result from both construction and operations.” According to Wannamaker, the Endangered Species Act doesn’t let the Navy spend money on the range without the National Marine Fisheries Service agreeing the project won’t jeopardize endangered species. (Ed. note: It appears from AEI’s admittedly naive legal perspective that the question of exactly what operational and mitigation measures are appropriate for the site can best be addressed at the time of the later permitting.  At this stage, there is little doubt that the Navy’s need for a littoral instrumented range is real and that the USWTR will proceed; the questions will include how much limitation on sonar activities should be imposed on the range while right whales are nearby.  There is no reason this cannot be addressed later, and indeed, there is likely to be better information at that time, including a revised Risk Assessment curve, which could well lead to more caution being imposed.)

Navy Says Right Whales Not at Risk Near New Training Range

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The US Navy has released a Final EIS for its long-planned Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), and has settled on an area off Jacksonville as its preferred location.  This was one of three areas under consideration, and marks a shift from earlier plans to locate the range off North Carolina, which met widespread resistance from state officials and environmental advocates.  The new range will host fairly intensive (average of 4x/month) active sonar training and other Navy training programs.  The USWTR will be about 50 miles offshore,  which the Navy feels is far enough to avoid acoustic impacts on wintering Right whales close to shore.  Environmental groups and the State of Florida continue to question the site’s appropriateness, largely due to concerns about impacts on this vulnerable whale population.  The range will be “instrumented,” meaning that there are permanently deployed acoustic (and many other) monitors on the seabed, allowing more comprehensive monitoring of animals within the range than is normally possible at sea.  However, concerns remain that the Navy’s mitigation plan is designed to prevent only physical injury, and that whales (especially young ones) may be behaviorally disrupted by much lower levels of sound at much greater distances.  The Navy has adopted several measures to minimize risk to Right whales while ships are transiting the near-shore critical habitat, but has rejected options that would minimize activity during the Dec-Mar season when whales are present.  Further mitigation may be imposed by NMFS when it publishes the final “Rule” after assessing the Navy’s EIS; NMFS has worked closely with the Navy as it developed the EIS, but with the advent of the new administration, is reassessing its own sonar-mitigation standards.  Note: AEI will offer further analysis of the Navy’s EIS in the coming weeks (and, sorry for being a bit slow getting this news up!).

Podcasts of Bay Area Recordist Talks

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Bay Area Sound Ecology has been hosting evening talks by great recordists from all over in recent months, and the evenings are all available for streaming or downloading on their website.  Go there and hear tales and stellar recordings from Chris Watson, Andrew Roth, James LeBrecht, and Gordon Hempton.

Open Sound New Orleans

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Music, ambiences, and stories from N'orleans!

Music, ambiences, and stories from N'orleans!

Yet another ear-opener in the recent surge of online soundmaps, and by gorey, this one might just be my favorite of them all! Could be due to a bit more personal connection to the city in question (visits, friends who’ve lived there), could be the quality of the sounds presented, or could be just that N’orleans is one of the more interesting urban communities out there.   Visit Open Sound New Orleans here, and hear an NPR story on the project here.

Global Soundmaps Bursting Out All Over

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It seems like every time I turn around, there’s a new global sound mapping site popping up in my browser!  If you want to take a listen to the everyday sounds of this aural adventure called Planet Earth, here are three quite varied options–a click on each image below will take you to the site.  All of these sites accept any sound file you care to upload.

Radio Aporee

By far the most ambitious and creative of the bunch, this site is beautiful, if a bit opaque to navigate.  Clicking into the site will land you smack-dab into a fairly close up view of a city streetscape, with a few red dots denoting sound files uploaded from particular locations. Zoom out and you’ll see this neighborhood shrink down, while the red dots proliferate across the country, continent, and planet.  Click on any dot to listen in.  One of the cooler features is soundwalks, in which the “red dot soundfiles” fade out and in as you wander down the street!

Save Our Sounds BBC project


The newcomer to the block, this BBC soundmapping project just launched in June, and is rapidly gathering sound files from around the world.  In addition to the sound map, the main site features radio features from the concurrent series on BBC radio and a Desperately Seeking Sounds feature, in which visitors ask the global recording community to help them find sounds that they miss from their past or need for a current project.  Despite the big sponsor, this site’s sounds load more sluggishly than many other grassroots soundmaps out there, but there are some nice clips being sent in.

A map interface to track sounds submitted via AudioBoo, an iPhone app that lets users record sounds on their iPhone and upload it for the world to share.  Not surprisingly, this format leads to more random sounds (parties and moments that may not really “deserve” global attention) and more than a few oral ramblings on new projects or, whatever…

All of the maps end up being somewhat Euro/NorthAmerica-centric (especially Uboo), but each has some reach into Asia, Africa, and South America.  The sounds tend toward urban ambiences (that’s where the people with recording equipment do tend to live!), with a few natural settings as well.

FWS Wind Farm Siting Recommendations Still Fail to Consider Noise Impacts

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Call me naive, but I never imagined that the Fish and Wildlife Service would make it nearly to the conclusion of its process of developing Siting Recommendations for wind farms without any consideration of the acoustic footprint of these sprawling industrial installations.  Of all the possible impacts that large wind farms may have, their acoustic presence is likely to be second only to the raw habitat changes in its localized biological significance.  The Federal Advisory Committee charged with drafting FWS recommendations and procedures for assessing impacts on wildlife has been working since 2007, and has just released the 3rd Draft of its recommendations, which contain not one single occurance of the words noise, acoustics, or ambient.  Acoustic appears only in  references to acoustic monitoring to identify the presence of bats or birds.  Sound appears three times, each one in the phrase “scientifically sound,”  which may in fact be related to the lack of attention to any acoustic impacts or effects in the rest of the document.  In correspondence with a committee member, I learned that they had briefly discussed noise impacts of turbines, but had quickly concluded that there was insufficient science on which to base any recommendations.  

I have no idea what the members were aware of in the bioacoustics and anthropogenic sound literature, but there is a long (if not always broad) body of research into the effects that road noise, ocean noise, aircraft and military noise, and more have on wildlife–looking at avoidance, stress hormones, disruption of mating, and acoustic masking.  The nature of wind turbine noise is not so different than some of the noise sources that are well studied.  In addition, bioacousticians are constantly adding to our understanding of the hearing ranges and acoustic communication/behaviors of an increasingly wide range of species.  And, in order to pass muster with local or state permitting standards, wind farm developers must produce sound modeling maps showing their predicted sound levels at various distances from turbines. Surely there is enough here for FWS to address the simple need to assess potential wind farm sites to be sure that any especially acoustically sensitive species will either not be significantly affected, or have suitable nearby habitat to relocate to.  

The National Park Service Natural Sounds Office is but one (and the most experienced) agency office that is always ready to share its expertise with other agencies; one of the more intriguing recent NPS research efforts has been looking precisely at the sort of noise impacts that could be caused by wind farms: modest increases in background ambient noise, and how that may make it more difficult for predators to hear and find prey (e.g., mice in leaves), or make it harder for prey to hear predators in time (e.g., owl wings or stalking bobcat).  The US Forest Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, BLM, and National Science Foundation all consider noise impacts as a matter of routine; why does FWS consider the topic too complex or too little understood to be relevant to this foundational document?

The committee may feel that existing assessments of habitat impacts will protect animals from more subtle acoustic effects as well. In some wide-open spaces (such as ranch land), this may be the case, as the turbines and their infrastructure will create ongoing visual/presence impacts. On wooded ridges, however, acoustic impacts could well outstrip visual and road-related impacts: the small footprints of the turbine towers will be surrounded by forests where the increased noise will be a primary effect, and in some topography, lowlands beneath ridges may well be significantly noisier for at least a half mile, and in many cases, up to a mile from the edge of the wind farm, especially at night.  We can only hope that the committee reassesses their dismissal of this potentially significant siting factor, or that there will be an opportunity for scientists and other agencies to comment and amend the recommendations before they are finalized.

See the, where you can download the latest draft, as well as a PDF version of the presentation to be made at a public meeting this week.

Loss of Quiet Places

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I’ve known Gordon Hempton for quite some time; this is a good peek into his quest to find and hopefully protect natural quiet.  He claims that several years ago he could only found two places in the lower 48 where human sound did not intrude on a regular basis…..

Defender of quiet places |

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