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How Do Offshore Wind Farms Impact Ocean Ecosystems?

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Jane Marsh 14407
Editor Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Mar 11, 2021
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There’s no denying that renewable energy technology has become increasingly popular. It’s more common for households and businesses to choose solar, geothermal, and other options for power. These clean, never-ending resources hold real promise for a healthier planet.

However, we can’t ignore that some of these solutions come with implications. The world’s offshore wind farms are just one example. Take a look.

The Advantages of Wind Energy

This specific renewable energy source has various financial and environmental advantages, such as job creation, reduced emissions, and industry growth. It’s more typical to see wind farms on land, where several wind turbines spin continuously to generate energy. But offshore wind farms have become an alternative.

If you install wind turbines at sea, you don’t have to sacrifice any land. This point helps negate complaints about how “unsightly” wind turbines can appear. Plus, you don’t have to disrupt neighborhoods. It’s true that winds blow stronger across the water, which means we can produce more power from offshore wind farms, too.

Ways Offshore Wind Farms Damage Marine Wildlife

These perks don’t come without downsides, though. Issues like installation and maintenance prices exist due to location. There are also concerns about longevity, since marine environments can be hostile, which leads to more frequent replacements. Recently, research has continued to emerge regarding ocean ecosystem damage.

The United States doesn’t have many offshore wind farms — in fact, only two fully operational utility projects exist: Block Island Wind Farm and Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind. There are just over 150 others worldwide. But even though offshore wind farms don’t sit along every coastline, marine wildlife has still experienced effects.

Habitat Displacement

It’s unknown how many species currently exist in our oceans. The figures range from thousands to millions, but we do know that extinction rates have increased due to climate change. Take rising ocean temperatures as an example. The waters in New England have jumped 3 degrees since 1960, and marine wildlife has struggled to adapt as a result.

Unfortunately, offshore wind farms only further displace animals. These massive wind turbines need space — and even though some may eventually be able to float, we still have to lay down cables underwater to transmit power. If you introduce an intrusion into any habitat, onshore or offshore, you effectively contribute to species decline.

Collision

This point isn’t as prevalent as habitat displacement. It’s a more significant problem at onshore wind farms, but collision remains a potential threat to birds and bat species. The oceans require seabirds to maintain biological diversity, as they help sustain other marine wildlife populations. These animals are just as essential to protect.

Underwater Noise

Construction can cause marine wildlife to endure harmful underwater noise pollution. These sounds will eventually impact animals psychologically and behaviorally. It’s mainly a technique called pile-driving, used to install poles for wind turbines, that creates such harsh underwater noise.

The sounds created in building offshore wind farms will be more destructive than noises caused throughout operations, even though operations last much longer. There’s still much to learn about how noise from offshore wind farms affects marine wildlife, but we already know underwater noise pollution leads to specific problems for them. It’s not a stretch to assume wind turbines will cause similar concerns.

Offshore Wind Farms Offer Promise, but Not Without Concerns

The current climate change struggle presents massive problems for our environment. That’s why renewable energy sources like wind are incredibly essential. However, we can’t ignore that, despite their promise for a cleaner future, they also come with downsides — especially when it comes to the surrounding ocean ecosystems.

If we want to prevent further harm, we must pay attention to such risks as we pursue different possibilities.

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Nathan Wilson on Mar 17, 2021

Jane, you've listed some possible problems with windfarms, but can you cite any studies which show actual harm? (The article you linked seems to be focused on noise from ships and seismic thumpers for oil/gas exploration).

I just ask because the Coast Guard does have an artificial reef program, in which they clean-up and deliberately sink old ships at selected off-shore locations.  One might think this would be harmful to marine ecosystems, but in locations (e.g. 100 or so feet deep) where there was initially nothing but a sandy bottom, in a decade the ship is over-grown with sea life which could not otherwise use that location!

I've been on SCUBA visits to a few such wrecks in waters around Florida, and they can be quite wonderful.  Of course that could be my own preference for reefs versus deep/open water.

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