Noise disrupts interdependencies in the web of life

While it is easier to evaluate specific impacts of a stimulus on specific animals, we know that nature is not just a catalog of individual species; rather it is a fabric of interdependent organisms living in interconnected physical habitats.

This point is punctuated in a recent paper on the Proceedings of the Royal Society that evaluates the noise impacts of gas well fields on the pollination and dispersal of piñon pine seedlings in New Mexico.

Aerial view of roads and pipes of a fracking field operation

Aerial view of roads and pipes of a fracking field operation

Gas wells use compressors which can be really noisy. The paper examines how the noise of a compressor field impacts hummingbirds that pollinate the piñons, and blue jays that disperse the piñon seeds. They found that the number of piñon seedlings were one quarter the density in the noisy compressor area than in quiet areas. This would indicate that the hummingbirds are not bothered by the noise, but the jays are.

This negative seed dispersal condition is further amplified by the fact that mice that eat the seeds are also not bothered by the noise, so that while there is no negative impact on pollination, the seeds that are produced are eaten by mice rather than distributed by jays.

Pazflor Field Layout for sea-floor processing

Pazflor Field Layout for sea-floor processing

This is an example of how noise disrupts a simple set of relationships between three species of vertebrates, and how the disruption impacts one species of tree.

We know quite a bit about terrestrial interdependencies because we spend most of our time “on the ground.” But we can be sure that the ocean is full of equally important interdependencies which we have yet to discover.

This adds yet another dimension we should consider as we roll unmitigated noise sources into the ocean.

Follow-up on the Arctic Five Year Oil and Gas exploration plan

A few weeks back we asked you all to sign on to a petition addressed to NOAA chief Dr. Jane Lubchenko expressing concerns about the rampant expansion of Arctic oil and gas exploration and production (E&P). Thanks to your participation and the outreach efforts of World Wildlife Fund we pulled in over 8500 signatures!

While it remains to be seen how effective the petition will be, your signatures were submitted along with our comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic Five-year Oil and Gas Exploration Plan (DEIS) – which was the specific focus of our concern.

Our comments drilled down into noise impacts only (pardon the pun), leaving comments on the impacts of oil spills, effluent discharge, drilling mud disposal, methane and other gas releases, physical habitat disruption, ship strikes, and the synergistic impacts of increased human activities to others.

While we brought up new data on the disruptions of seismic surveys, our comments also highlighted the noise sources from new “sub-sea” and deepwater technologies which have not yet been evaluated for noise impacts. These include seafloor processing, thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, and acoustic communication systems for autonomous vessel and equipment control.

We also brought up the point that while the DEIS evaluates various chronic noise sources independently (and thus constrained only by a 160dB re: 1µPa mitigation threshold) the ongoing noises of each of these technologies become an aggregate noise field that should be framed under the “continuous noise” mitigation threshold of 120 dB.

Consideration of aggregate and cumulative impacts has been detailed in a paper published this month in Bio Science, “A New Framework for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammals in a Rapidly Changing Arctic”.

Scientists, indigenous hunters, fishermen, environmental activists, conservationists, the British Parliament, American citizens, and even some enlightened American politicians are all trying to put the brakes on drilling the arctic. We all know that there is a lot at stake and none of us want to see this pristine environment destroyed just for a few years of petroleum profits.

But even with the ongoing global incidents of oil spills and other environmental damage (Shell had over 200 oil spills last year alone!) the Oilmen have been driving the issue of “need” solely based on the price of gas at the pump.

Hopefully cooler minds will prevail, regulators will heed our collective warnings (substantiated by your signatures) and Arctic Oil Extraction plans will be “put on ice” for an indefinite period of time.

Fossil Fuel Noise in the Arctic – website launches!

If you have been anywhere within earshot of the media recently you may have noticed that the Oilmen are on a bit of a rampage. Any sustainable energy program, environmental regulation, or legal challenge that does not promote their agenda is met with apoplectic derision as a “job killer” or worse.

Oil Seeking ArmadaOne of the drivers behind this is the American Petroleum Institutes (API) strategic plan to make America the #1 global oil and gas producer by 2018. API’s president Jack Gerard aims to accomplish this by expanding fossil fuel extraction on all US coasts, rolling back environmental regulations, and defending industry subsidies.

While it may just seem like the “flow of tides” in the public sector, those of us in conservation organizations are working overtime on many fronts: “Fracking,” East Coast drilling, Eastern Gulf lease expansion, Keystone XL, California Coast horizontal drilling, Outer Continental Shelf deep-water drilling, opening up the Arctic, and of course the climate impacts of these new fossil fuel energy sources – are all in play right now.

We have been anticipating this and for that last year have been working with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on a highly interactive and informative website specifically focused on the noise impacts of oil and gas operations in the Arctic.

“Don’t be a Buckethead” refers to the acoustical masking that all of the new introduced noise of industry will impose on the highly acoustic habitat of the Arctic Ocean (remember that it is mostly dark throughout the winter, setting the evolutionary stage for some amazing bio-acoustic adaptations). This point is illustrated with a fun and quirky “Buckethead” video on the website.

While we believe that a “full court press” on hydrocarbon development is generally a bad idea, given what we do know (and don’t know) about the risks and impacts, drilling in the Arctic is completely unacceptable.

Please help us halt this foolhardy proposal. Visit the Buckethead site to learn more – or cut to the chase and sign our petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking them to do their job and protect the pristine Arctic Ocean from industrial compromise.

Then visit the site…

The Arctic is changing fast, and it’s going to cost us a lot

I’ve just finished reviewing a 1600 page “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” (DEIS) issued for public comments about the five year plan for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The objective of the “draft” is to provide US citizens the opportunity to chime in on how – and if – we want the US Arctic waters surveyed for oil and gas deposits.

It is particularly ironic that just as the DEIS was being issued Shell Oil began dealing with a huge oil spill off the coast of Nigeria and another spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which occurred during the same sort of exploratory drilling that is being proposed in the Arctic), and Chevron is currently dealing with yet another platform explosion off the Nigerian coast. This tragic irony is punctuated throughout the DEIS by the recurring statement that an oil spill would be “highly unlikely.”

The rosy assumptions of “negligible impacts” colors the entire DEIS; the subjective term “unlikely” is peppered throughout when addressing impacts of seismic airgun surveys, discharge of drilling “muds” and chemical waste, noise from shipping and air transport, air pollution, and noise from icebreakers. And while the “highly unlikely” oil spill is on everyone’s mind, many other adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration are not even addressed in the DEIS; for example the persistent noise of thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, underwater acoustical communications equipment, and erection of “jack-up rigs.” While these noises may not be as loud as the seismic airgun surveys addressed in the DEIS (which produce continuous series of explosions that can be heard hundreds to thousands of miles away in the ocean) they will nonetheless produce a chronic smog of noise pollution which will compromise the acoustical habitat that fish, whales, and other marine life depend on to communicate, find food, and evade predators.

It is clear that the intention of the exploration strategies proposed in the DEIS are not to “just find out what is out there,” but rather to find out where extraction operations will yield the best results. If there is one thing that is “highly unlikely,” it is that fossil fuel found in the exploration phase will remain untapped.

Clearing the way to extraction is the fundamental assumption made by issuing this exploration DEIS, and as such it is the gateway to rapid expansion of oil and gas operations in the Arctic – the impacts of which will make the proposed exploration impacts in the DEIS pale.

But there are those who argue that securing domestic energy supplies (and the millions of jobs that the American Petroleum Industry is promising us) will be worth the risks. Unfortunately the cost is extremely high. This is not just the cost to the environment, nor the cost of tax subsidies we give to the oil industry, nor the individual costs we all bear every time we drive our cars to the pump. The ultimate cost is the response of our planet to climate change. The impacts of this are most apparent is in the Arctic – with a second irony being that the receding Arctic ice cap induced by climate change is exposing ever more of the deadly treasure.

Time and time again, by way of systematic justifications of some environmental compromise or other we have been eroding the environmental health of the very habitat that we depend on for our own life support. This is evidenced by the continuous acceleration of species extinctions world-wide. This trend points to the fact that soon enough humans will find ourselves near the top of the “endangered” list – unless we begin to make broad systematic changes in the way we engage with our limited planetary habitat. Drilling in the Arctic is a bad way to start.

National Ocean Policy released today for public review!

Today the National Ocean Council released their Draft Implementation Plan for a National Ocean Policy. This is fabulous news because the US has never had a comprehensive ocean management plan, we have just been tangled in a web of agencies each “managing” their own areas of concern – regional fisheries councils, Department of Transportation, Minerals Management, US Navy, the Coast Guard, State and Tribal agencies, the Energy Department, Marine Mammal Commission, etc., etc., etc….

The urgent call for a comprehensive ocean management plan went out almost a decade ago in 2002 with the Pew Ocean Commission report. A bit over a year later the call was again made by the US Commission on Ocean Policy. The importance of the reports lead Congress to craft complimentary ocean policy acts with Senator Barbara Boxer’s “National Ocean Protection Act” (NOPA 2005) and Rep. Sam Farr’s “Oceans 21” (2006).

The Bush administration wasn’t really big on conservation bills so while Oceans 21 was passed in the House, NOPA didn’t get out of committee. Thus it was with considerable delight for me when the newly elected Obama Administration ushered in an Interagency Task Force to come up with a comprehensive National Ocean Policy. The document released today was a product of the taskforce’s work – including hearing thousands of public comments, and reading thousands of written recommendations.

I have not yet had a chance to dig in and read the draft, but the stated objective of reconciling all national ocean interests to “be considered collectively and managed comprehensively and collaboratively” sounds like a breath of fresh air. It will be easier to assure environmental compliance, and much easier for ocean industries and other stakeholders to tailor their activities under a single comprehensive policy rather than having to appeal an array of uncoordinated regulatory agencies for approvals on their various enterprises.

What is not to like about reconciling and streamlining ocean policy? Unfortunately you will need to brace yourself for the clamor, hue, and cry of the Oilmen and their minions who will bellow about a “job-killing government power grab.” They prefer the tattered regulatory fabric that has made possible the offshore dead zones, regional fisheries crashes, the disappearing wetlands, and yes, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It’s easier for big industry to game a system that is a confused mess of conflicting fiefdoms. A coordinated interagency ocean policy is more efficient, more sensible, and will be easier to drive toward a sustainable set of complimentary policies – something apparently the Oilmen don’t want.

We’ll review the document and let you know how we can all support the implementation of this long-awaited sea change in US National ocean management.

Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, second right, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, second right, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

The Arctic is on Everybody’s Sonar Lately

Last week we attended an Acoustic Society conference in San Diego. This time I didn’t deliver a paper so it was mostly a reconnaissance trip – both to catch up with colleagues and to introduce Gwynn, our Digital Assets Manager to the field.

It is not a surprise that many of the bioacoustic papers that were presented involved the Arctic – both in terms of the acoustic ecology and habitat assessment, and in learning more about the animals in the area.

Map of polar ice melt back

Map of polar ice melt

As the “ground zero” for global warming, the Arctic is changing extremely fast. Due to accelerated melt-back of the ice-cap entire expanses of the sea are being exposed to daylight which may not have seen the sun since the late Miocene period (over five million years ago). We all know that this is distressing the Polar Bears, but it is also threatening the Ribbon, Ringed, and Bearded seals, which live exclusively on sea ice.

Sound recordings are being made documenting animal vocalizations, baseline ambient noise, and the rise in human-generated noise. New sounds are being discovered, and new impacts are being noticed.

And this is none too soon.

This last summer Shell Oil was cleared to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, and just last Thursday the Department of Interior released a five year offshore drilling plan that includes opening up more leases in the Arctic.

Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will soon be releasing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for their five year Arctic plan for public comments. Given that the petroleum industry has been pushing to get their pipes in the Arctic waters we expect that there will be much to comment on.

Ribbon Seal: Exploratorium

Ribbon Seal: Photo by Exploratorium

We have been anticipating this and spent a good amount of time this last year with Dave Aplin of WWF, Michael Jasny of NRDC, and the good folks at Bean Creativedeveloping a highly featured and interactive website focused on the impacts of offshore oil industry noise on Arctic habitats.

We’ll be launching this in the next few weeks to get everyone up to speed on the issues so that we can all provide focused and informed critiques of the NMFS plan.

Stay tuned; given the voracious appetite of the Oil Men we’ll need “all hands on deck” to protect the Arctic from their oily (and noisy) assaults.

Mitigating offshore wind farm noise

One of the hot topics at the recent International Quiet Ocean Experiment in Paris was the noise impacts of offshore wind farms. It seems that while the American Oilmen are furiously trying to carve up the Arctic for fossil fuel, the Europeans are rapidly developing wind power. Much of this is happening in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and the European continent.

North Sea Wind Farm

While wind power has significantly lower environmental impact than fossil fuel, it does not come without drawbacks. From a noise standpoint the concerns include the noise of installation, and the ongoing noises of operation.

The operation noises include gearbox vibration transmitted down the mast, and the thumping noise generated by the tip vortices as they pass by a boundary (like the ocean surface).

Pile Driving with bubble curtain

The installation noises in the shallow North Sea are from pile-driving the foundations to mount the mast. Percussive noise from pile driving was found to be deadly to fish, and pernicious to marine mammals.

Mitigation for pile driving noise was first developed during the San Francisco Bay Area bridge retrofits and involves the use of “bubble curtains.” By surrounding a driving pile with a ring of air bubbles, the water and noise within the ring can be acoustically isolated from the surrounding environment.

The drawback here is that the process is energy intensive because a high volume of air needs to be continuously forced down to the depth of the seabed to be released in a continuous stream. This can get really expensive: This mandated mitigation doubled the cost of the Richmond Bridge seismic retrofit.

But researchers at the University of Texas, Austin have developed an improvement on the bubble curtain – by encapsulating the bubbles in a latex envelope, a curtain can be installed while pile driving, and then relocated when needed elsewhere.

This promising technology could decrease the expense as well as the noise of developing wind farms in the North Sea – or even off the coast of America!

The Noisy Cost of Power

It has been thoroughly established that harvesting power from fossil fuel is extremely expensive. Global warming and oil spills notwithstanding, from an ocean noise perspective the hydrocarbon industry is responsible for the lions share of marine noise pollution.

Figure 1: Global seismic airgun operations

Figure 1: Global seismic airgun operations

Most of the known noise comes from seismic airgun surveys – air-driven explosive impulses that penetrate the seafloor (and spread throughout the ocean) to derive geological maps of the sub-floor strata. At any given time there may be 40-50 of these surveys running concurrently, creating a din that can be heard all across the seas. [Figure 1 and Video]

Video: Seismic Survey Methods

Additionally, as offshore operations push deeper into the ocean, seafloor mounted processing equipment and thruster stabilized operations platforms bring in their own suite of noises. [Figurez 2 and 3]

Figure 2: Acoustic communications on seafloor equipment

Figure 2: Acoustic communications on seafloor equipment

Figure 3: Thruster-stabilized operations platform

Figure 3: Thruster-stabilized operations platform

Figure 4: Wind farm

Figure 4: Wind farm

While some of these noise costs will go away as we shift to carbon-neutral energy such as wind power, the shift doesn’t entirely exempt us from generating noise. There are some places where wind turbines will be mounted on tethered, floating platforms, but in most cases they will be mounted on pilings or piers which have to be sunk – or rather pounded into the seabed. The pile-driving noise is already causing problems with sea life, as indicated in a recent der Spiegel article.

Additionally, with blade diameters of up to 100 m (325 ft.) even while spinning slowly, the tip velocities can approach mach speeds with tip vortices creating a loud “thwap” as the blade tip passes by (like a slow helicopter). [Figure 4] And then there is the whining of the gear boxes…

A single ocean-sited wind turbine would probably not be much of a problem because the acoustical coupling between the ocean and the air above is not very efficient. But with wind farms and turbine parks spreading thousands of these devices over hundreds of square miles of ocean surface, the noises will combine in unpredictable ways and may create other marine noise problems.

It remains to be seen (or heard) if and what these problems might be but we do know that fossil fuel is a dead end, so we need to move ahead. The problem is that we have grown our modern civilization on the idea of “cheap energy” and have habituated to its lusty flavor. Mitigating the costs of power will ultimately be best served by using less of it.

Report from the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans workshop

Maurice Ewing towing and airgun array

Maurice Ewing towing and airgun array

Spending the last two days in the company of geophysicists, marine mammologists, petroleum engineers and policy makers was much less grueling than I had anticipated. But the degree of collegiality was uncharacteristic of these affairs – to a point of being downright pleasant.

The purpose of the meeting was to craft a “Mitigations Practices” document for seismic airgun surveys to minimize their acoustic and behavioral impacts on marine mammals. The final product will be a synthesis of our discussions outlining recommended practices and standards for “Marine Mammal Observers,” emerging technologies, survey planning and design, and passive monitoring for marine animals.

While only four of us (out of 40) were from the environmental NGO community, it was comforting to be among a crowd of people – most of whom owe their living to fossil fuels – who were also sincerely concerned about the impacts of their industry on marine habitat. They were quite agreeable to contributing to a document wherein every line put more constraints on their work.

Of course everything must be put in some context; and while each sentence added costs to seismic surveys, with few exceptions the economic beneficiaries of these cost increases were the geophysicists, marine mammologists, and petroleum engineers in the room.

This situation was punctuated twice over the course of the workshop. On the first day it was when Jim Cummings ( delivered a paper that highlighted the behavioral impacts of seismic exploration on marine mammals – pointing out that the noise might do more that just bother or damage animals within a prescribed distance from the surveys. He pointed out that the noise also interfered with their foraging (feeding) efficiency well outside of the “safe exclusion zone” set by common mitigation practices.

On the second day things got a little hot when Dr. Lindy Weilgart (Dalhousie University) suggested that a “no action alternative” be used when the risks of environmental damage mandated that surveys not take place.

So back to the context: While we in the environmental NGO community were pleased to be invited to the table, by participating we had already accepted the inevitability of seismic surveys.

One of the many responses I received when I announced that I would be attending the workshop was from Mac Hawley, who quipped that “mitigation” and “seismic surveys” were an oxymoron.  I concurred stating that “mitigation” and “airguns” don’t belong in the same sentence unless the word “solar” is also included.

At the end of the day it was not a total giveaway. Dr. Weilgart did get precautionary language into the document. Jim Cummings did get some wording about broader considerations for behavioral and synergistic impacts. I wrote a piece on “Objectives and Outcomes” to clarify the fact that the document was not designed to “make sure that survey operators met the established guidelines;” rather it was to make sure that their practices, above all, are performed with the overarching objective of conserving marine life.

5 Year Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan hearings

Illustrated letter from Laura Honda's "Green Team" 4th-6th graders

Illustrated letter from Laura Honda’s “Green Team” 4th-6th graders

Last Thursday was the final public hearing on the 5 year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leasing program. While this was the last chance to stand up in public to express yourself about the program, it is not the last chance to comment, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has opened up the public comment period to September 20. (See below for instructions.)

Secretary Salazar was handed the parting gift that the previous administration handed to the oil men – in the form of an oil field leasing program for our coastal oceans that presupposed the continued exploitation of petroleum as our national energy strategy for the future.

Fortunately Secretary Salazar was able to put that assumption on “pause” so he could take in the opinions of the public on this critical issue.

Part of extending the comment period involved staging four public hearings on each of the coasts that would be affected by offshore oil production. The first hearing was in New Jersey, the second in New Orleans, the third in Alaska, and the fourth in San Francisco.

All of the hearings were very well attended. A majority of the public – including elected officials – were more supportive of alternative energy uses of the OCS over oil and gas. This included the hearings in New Orleans, where the public is familiar with what the oil economy brings. About 30% of the public in New Orleans was in favor of oil and gas development. In the other locations the public was predominantly against new fossil fuel development.

Many of the oil folks were complaining that the hearings were loaded against them; with hundreds of conservationists dressed as polar bears, otters and dolphins creating a carnival atmosphere outside of the hearings, and the public presentations mostly against oil drilling. But as the proponents had the same opportunities to express their opinions that everyone else had, this argument is a bit specious.

In the context of this setting, it seemed as if the oil proponents are “against the ropes” on this issue. Most of them couched their presentations within the understanding that solar, wind, and wave energy were going to be the future of our national energy policy. Even Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the “Duchess of Drill Baby Drill,” stated that oil extraction would need to be done in environmentally sound manner to be acceptable.

The hearings were a clear expression of the public sentiment on the oil economy. I deeply respect Secretary Salazar and his staff for sitting though four days of the same few arguments recited over and over again by both sides of the issue, with the only distinction being how well the presenters handled the microphone.

There were hundreds of folks entering comments in all locations, so actual delivered comments were based on “the luck of the draw.” I got up really early to register so I was able to put in my 3 minutes on the potential dangers of seafloor processing noise. My presentation was a summary of our letter, which I also submitted:

I also submitted a package of letters from Laura Honda’s Manor School “Green Team.” The package came to me last week just in time and contained about 30 beautifully illustrated appeals for conservation. While I’d love to share every one, the summary letter really gets to the point:

The “clincher” is on the second page.

If you want to submit your own letter, you can take cues from these letters, or write your own vers libre on your concerns about drilling for oil, continuing with our oil-based economy, or your concerns about the impacts of offshore wind and wave power.

To get more informed about the entire program, see the Interior website here:

Instructions for submitting comments are here:

I have faith that Secretary Salazar will use his wisdom to sort out a cogent and forward-looking energy strategy from the hearings and from your comments.

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