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Are U.S. offshore wind farms killing endangered North Atlantic right whales?

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Bob Meinetz's picture
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"America’s First Offshore Wind Farm Spins to Life", triumphantly announced Caroline Kennedy (pen name: Tatiana Schlossberg) in a December, 2016 article for the New York Times. Days earlier, Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine farm off the coast of Jamestown, Rhode Island, had become the first offshore wind farm to deliver electricity to U.S. shores.

“This is a historic milestone for reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s happening here in the Ocean State,” crowed Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

Though small compared to farms in Scottish and Danish waters, developer Deepwater Wind had high hopes for Block Island, its maiden U.S. venture. Studies conducted by consultancy Inspire Environmental had investigated concerns related to cable routing, eelgrass habitat, hardbottom habitat, lobsters, and recreational boating, and the firm had obtained regulatory approval for the project. Kennedy claimed Block Island's five General Electric turbines were "capable of powering about 17,000 homes," branding it "the first successful offshore wind development in the United States."

Her assessment may have been premature.

In June, 2017, local blog Newport Buzz reported a troubling development: 46 dead humpback whales had washed ashore on the Atlantic coast since January, 2017, the month after Block Island had entered service. Jennifer Goebel, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA), said the trend qualified as an "unusual mortality event", or one that involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population. She believed Block Island might have been responsible for a humpback whale that had washed up days earlier, and said it "demands immediate response."

Reporter Christian Winthrop explains:
 

"Both construction and ordinary operations noises from offshore wind turbines can travel immense distances under water. This harms whales, dolphins, marine mammals and fish that communicate with noises in order to breed. For this reason, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) guidelines show that high noise levels can cause marine mammals like whales and dolphins to go deaf and disrupt their vocal communications."

The ongoing surge in whale mortalities off the Atlantic coast since 2017 has not been limited to relatively-common humpbacks. NOAA has labeled the decimation of an endangered species, the North Atlantic right whale, as the "2017–2021 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event":

"Beginning in 2017, elevated mortalities in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have been documented, primarily in Canada but some in the U.S., and were collectively declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME)...To date in 2021, two mortalities has been documented. The current total confirmed mortalities for the UME are 34 dead stranded whales (21 in Canada; 13 in the United States), and the leading category for the cause of death for this UME is “human interaction."

A recent paper in the Journal Oceanography, titled "Regime Shift is Driving Collapse of the North Atlantic Right Whale" attributes increased mortality of the species to "vessel strikes", offering the tortured hypothesis that "climate-driven changes in ocean circulation have altered the foraging environment and habitat use of right whales, reducing the population’s calving rate and exposing it to greater mortality risks from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement." The paper apparently presumes January, 2017, marked the tipping point when right whales began running into ships.

Unconsidered is the possibility the sudden increase in whale injuries is caused by collision with the massive pylons supporting offshore wind turbines. Humpbacks and rights are both baleen whales, which cruise about sifting plankton from seawater for nourishment. Without the need to pursue prey, evolution has left them with limited forward vision and no expectation of encountering a massive steel post obstructing their migration route.

The possibility needs to be considered, and soon. Block Island and a pilot plant off the coast of Virginia have a combined of capacity of 42 megawatts; 12 massive, new offshore windfarms, comprising 11,838 megawatts - a 28,000%  increase - are planned for completion by 2026.

Oblivious to its grotesque environmental impacts, the juggernaut of "renewable" energy continues unabated. Though it's likely too late to save Eubalaena glacialis from permanent, irrevocable extinction (only 356 individuals are known to exist), we need not, and cannot, allow ourselves to surrender to climate change. We merely need to recognize that extinction is the antithesis of sustainability, of renewability - and that quack remedies are often more dangerous than the disease they're supposed to cure.

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Jens Dalsgaard's picture
Jens Dalsgaard on Sep 2, 2021

In Denmark we have substantial experience with windmills placed at sea. And concerns around effect on marine life of course is there. Studies though show that once the windmills are in operations they have no effect on marine life.

Any effects to marine life occur during construction. So we need to consider minimizing noise and sediment movements during construction.

Once construction is over, marine life (whales, seals, ...) returns.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 2, 2021

Thanks for this follow up, Jens-- would you have a link to a recommended study done in Denmark on this that can be read and referenced? Would love to read the particulars on that study

Jens Dalsgaard's picture
Jens Dalsgaard on Sep 2, 2021

Will try finding articles in English, Matt. I doubt you guys will understand the Danish articles (https://dokodoc.com/vindmller-og-dyreliv.html).

The best I can find right now is the following that mentions nothing like the suggested mass death rather a temporary effect during the construction phase: https://www.wind-energy-the-facts.org/impacts-on-marine-mammals-and-sea-...

I do not neglect the fact that windmills may have some negative effect - to birds as well as marine life. I do oppose though the claim that it should have led to mass death as stated in the article. Coal or oil based energy production too leads to negative effects on wild life. It is a matter of balance and constantly seeking to identify and minimize problems. Not bringing false accusations ahead.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 2, 2021

Jens, I took the liberty of translating your reference to English with Google Translate, and there is no mention of whales.

Where are the "false accusations" in my article? I reported facts: that after the start of operations at Block Island Wind Farm, located in the Gulf Stream, in the migration route of both humpback and Atlantic right whales, both species began washing up dead in increased numbers. That is a fact.

Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it wasn't. Either way: before 12 massive new windfarms are built in well-established whale migration routes, would you not agree installing video and seismic recording equipment on the pylons at Block Island would be a minimal investment to make to determine whether or not they are the cause? Especially, when it might prevent the extinction of a mammal that evolved over 2 million years before the mammal causing that extinction?

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