In this episode, Nora Ives sits down with faculty member Dr. Doug Nowacek to discuss his newly awarded Department of Energy funded WOW project, which stands for wildlife and offshore wind. Nora and Doug discuss some of the potential impacts of offshore wind on wildlife, mitigation measures, and goals of the WOW project. Part of The F-Files series.
Dr. Doug Nowacek is the Randolph K. Repass and Sally-Christine Rodgers University Distinguished Professor of Conservation Technology in Environment and Engineering. His research is focused on the link between acoustic and motor behavior in marine mammals, primarily cetaceans and manatees, specifically, how they use sound in ecological processes. The cetaceans, or whales and dolphins, are divided into two main groups, the toothed whales (odontocetes) and the baleen whales (mysticetes). One of his specific areas of research is the use of echolocation and foraging behavior in one of the odontocetes, the bottlenose dolphin. Another focus is the effect(s) of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals.
Nora Ives, Master in Environmental Management.
Nora is a Masters student studying coastal environmental management at Duke University. She co-produces the F-Files with Stephanie Hillsgrove. She’s worked as an educator in the Blue Ridge and Rocky Mountains, and as a Marine Naturalist and First Mate in Maui. She’s happiest when working on or for the oceans, and very pleased to combine her prior experience as a theater director in New York City with her passion for the seas while working on this podcast.
8 December 2021
Seas the Day Podcast
Series – Faculty Files (F-Files)
Episode 25 – The WOW Project: Sailing Towards a Future in Renewable Energy
[Whale vocalizing/ whale song]
Nora: I first heard this song live from the bow of a catamaran in the North Pacific while working as a marine naturalist. I drop the hydrophone overboard to eavesdrop on the enormous humpback whale suspended just beneath our sailboat, serenading the Hawaiian breeding grounds with song, a song that changes every year. Communicating what? We still don’t know…
All the passengers are silent as they listened to the ethereal song amplified above water. One woman is quietly crying and smiling at the same time. [laugh] She approaches me after I reel the hydrophone back on board and thanks me – “I’ve never heard them sing before,” she says.
So much marine life communicates through sound. In an environment where light attenuates at 200 meters sound is an efficient way to navigate, to locate prey, to woo a mate. So, whales and wind, what’s the connection?
There is nearly double the amount of energy we use in one year in the U.S. available in offshore wind off of our nation’s coast. That’s over 2000 giga watts! And, that’s a conservative estimate by the Department of Energy; which excludes locations where the ocean is too deep to realistically build wind farms, or where the wind doesn’t blow consistently. And it gets better! Once you build that wind farm, the fuel is free! It’s out there blowing every day! And, not only is when free — it’s also clean and renewable. It doesn’t require the burning of fossil fuels which pollute our atmosphere with greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Offshore wind seems like a no-brainer, right?
The Biden administration agrees and sees this opportunity to kick our national dependency on fossil fuel. The administration announced their 30 gigawatts by 2030 plan last spring to support the development of offshore wind. …so, what’s the catch?
[Music – Joe Morton, “Oyster Waltz” (instrumental)]
N: Welcome to Seas the Day, a podcast from the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. I’m your host Nora Ives.
In this episode of the F-Files, I’ll highlight the work of faculty member Dr. Doug Nowacek, and his recently DOE awarded grant for the WOW project, which stands for wildlife and offshore wind. In my interview with Doug, we’ll explore some of the potential impacts of offshore wind on wildlife, including our humpbacks another whales, and the potential ways to mitigate those impacts. We’ll talk about wind energy, how sound comes into play, and the goals of the wild project.
Alright let’s dive into the interview:
I’m here with Dr. Doug Nowacek, an expert on the bioacoustics of cetaceans. Dr. Nowacek has served as a panel advisor for the IUCN, has given expert testimony to Congress on cetacean bioacoustics, and is also my professor this semester for offshore renewable energy.
In our first conversation Doug breaks down some of the physics and engineering behind offshore wind…
N: So, as we’re learning in our course this semester, offshore wind energy development is an exciting addition to the renewable energy sector and has the potential to contribute a large percentage to the US energy grid…is that correct…?
Doug: Yes, absolutely – yeah so, so why wind, right, that’s the one of the big questions. Wind is certainly used terrestrially in the U.S., it’s very successfully in the interior of the country. The offshore wind is particularly appealing because there’s lots of space out there to put turbines. The wind is consistent, there are lots of really interesting wind energy maps that folks can visit through the national renewable energy lab, NREL for example. And, you can see where the wind potential is quite good, and there’s lots of it in the U.S. – and, a lot of it on the continental shelf, which is very good because then citing the turbines is easier when the water is not too too deep… although we can get into that later. So, it’s the other part about having a lot of spaces that the turbines can get very big, and this is a really important aspect of wind because the amount of energy a given turbine can generate is directly related to how much area is swept, as you learned in class.
N: Yes, of course [laughing]
D: So, the area that the blades actually move through is directly related to how much power it can generate. So, if you get further offshore turbines can get taller and have a bigger swept area, and each one can generate more power.
N: So, we’re talking about the blades on the actual windmill, correct?
D: That’s right.
N: So, the bigger the blade the more power?
D: That’s right, [N: ok] that’s right. And, people look at them and notice that they seem to be turning quite slowly, but the physics of it really is that they are… the tip of those blades – right, so if the whole blade is spinning at the same rate, the tip of it is actually moving very fast because it’s going through a much bigger area, right. So, as that area, the swept area, that it’s called, gets bigger and bigger than that it generates more power. And, it’s an exponential relationship because of the area, the way you calculate the area of a circle; and also, the wind speed. So, in that sense, it’s very attractive because you can put up big bladed wind turbines and not be interfering with airplanes flying, or people flying kites, or parasails, or anything like that – and, it’s just, there’s a lot of space for it to happen.
N: Very exciting! So, we’ve got…okay, so we’ve got more space offshore to do this, to install these bigger turbines, and then you mentioned the continental shelf, correct? So, that that allows us to install these turbines in relatively shallow areas compared to offshore [D: yeah] …deep, I guess…deep.
D: Yeah, deep is a relative term. Oceanographers think of deep is more than 200 meters, [N: ok] but in the wind, in the wind power area, it’s really more than 60 meters. I believe is where it really transitions to deep, and the transition there is when it’s shallower than that it’s pretty, it’s feasible well it’s been done hundreds of times in Europe, and in China and other places. That you can fix the pile, the turbine, through a piling directly to the bottom, and so piledriving, which we’ll come to, is loud, for sure, but it’s a stable way to site the turbine in the ground. And if you’re less than 60 meters, then you, then it’s really feasible to do that. Because think about that then the turbine, the tower has to be, the monopile, or if it’s a monopile, has to be the depth of the water plus the height of the turbine, right – so, that gets to be a big piece of equipment. And, if you’re talking about having to go through multiple 10s of meters of water so…
And, then there are a couple different ways to do fixed wind turbines offshore. So, you can do they call them jacketed, they’re monopiles, there are there are a couple different ways that that’s done, but of course, every it all relies on fixing them into the into the ground. As you get further offshore, and get to deeper water, there are actually some operational floating wind farms; which is really amazing to me the engineering and all this, is really very exciting enough itself. Presents some really interesting opportunities for students at all levels, from undergrad right through, you know, PhD. That you’re… the engineering that goes along with this, which has been borrowed, has borrowed some technology from the offshore oil gas industry, in terms of fixing things to the bottom, keeping them in place, and lots of other things too. But the floating wind farms is really amazing!
So, there are a couple different ways to do it – one of them, you just think about the weight balance. So that you put a big weight at the bottom of the stock, basically, and it sits down there and floats and holds itself up right. It is tethered, with three cables, so those cables still have to go to the bottom. But taking a, you know I don’t know one inch steel cable, and tethering into the bottom is a much different and much less invasive, much less expensive than making a huge monopile that goes all the way to the bottom.
D: So, the floating wind farms, there’s one operational in Scotland. There’s another one I believe, being installed off Portugal…maybe operational already? This technology is coming. Of course, the further offshore you get, then you have to get the power back to shore, [N: right] which is a whole other, whole other issue, much more than you want to talk about today.
N: Right. Well, I do when I come back to the monopile you mentioned, right. [D: yeah] As I understand it from class, the majority of currently installed offshore wind is monopile, correct? [D: yeah] So that’s like a giant tree trunk to which the windmill blades turbines are attached, right? [D: yeah, exactly] Okay. So, we’ve got these monopiles, and you have to drive it into the ocean floor to secure it, and you said that’s loud, right? [D: it is] So how loud is that?
D: So piledriving, if we just take one step back to the ocean noise, and the biggest contributors, just to tick them off, biggest contributors to ocean noise are: shipping, is number one, in terms of the total energy input. Next is offshore seismic surveys, largely for oil and gas exploration, because they need the biggest biggest sound to get down deepest into the water, into the bottom, into the substrate. But piledriving and onshore/offshore construction is also quite loud because of the in the case of piledriver.
So, what you’re doing is, you’re taking this huge monopile and then these big barges go out with these massive hydraulic hammers, right; and they stand the piling up, put the hammer over the top, and they just bang on it, right. And they bang it down into gravel, rock, and clay, and whatever, right. It’s not as loud on a per hammer basis as a seismic by any means [N: ok] Definitely produces sound emanates out from the from the piling, from the operation, and the other thing it does do when you hammer it course this energy gets coupled into the ground. So that can also spread through the ground. Overall, these are this is a very localized source of noise and it’s a relatively short one, because they can drive those piles in a matter of hours. Now if you’re putting together a whole wind farm, right, then you’re talking about a lot of monopiles.
Just for comparison, and it’s not to try to say one is necessarily better or worse than the other, a seismic array for oil gas exploration could cover hundreds of square kilometers. Shooting a shot every 10 to 12 seconds, and those shots are the loudest sound that we as people put into the water routinely. There are offshore explosions, and things that are done for lots of reasons, but on a routine basis. So, you got shot every 10 to 12 seconds, 24/7, as these things are ships are mowing the lawn effectively over these areas that are of interest for oil and gas. So, it’s just a different problem. It’s slightly, it’s less energy overall going into the water, which is the way that I kind of think about it, and so, the other thing about it is…
N: It’s less energy for the monopiles?
D: Well, absolutely! Especially given the regularity in this space, and the… how long the seismic surveys have to go. So overall it’s much less energy, that’s much more localized, and it’s stationary which has the advantage of being able to do things, like put bubble nets or things that are called cofferdams – which are basically just small structures that you that you construct around it, that actually deadens the sound, right. [N: right] The bubble screens work reasonably well. The up and down side of it is, bubbles in the water make their own noise, but they actually absorb that sound as it goes by a lot of it. The slight trick is that the piledriving has a lot of low frequency sound, and the bubble nets in general are better at absorbing has slightly higher frequencies. And so, it’s not perfect, you can make bigger bubbles; the size of the bubble relates to how well it absorbs, different frequencies… [N: okay] more than we want to get into [N: yeah] Nonetheless, you have a localized sound source that if you want to you can at least have some effect on how much sound gets out.
N: Right. Is there a comparison… say if I were a humpback whale in the Atlantic cruising towards the breeding grounds, or serenading trying to find a mate [D: yeah, yeah] is there a like a human analogy to what that sound would be like for that humpback whale, [D: yeah] what that experience would be?
D: Well, if you’re, to put it in human terms, I think if you… well, we hear hammering on shore. So, when they build bridges, right, they’ll drive pilings into the ground. If you’re a humpback swimming up the East Coast, how far away, for example, would you hear pile driving? Certainly, you know, kilometers away. [N: wow] They could hear it. Now, there’s also an important distinction between being able to detect something, it being an annoyance, and then lastly, it being actually potentially injurious [N: right] Right. So, on the injury side, you have to be very close to that piling operation, [N: okay] to really cause any serious damage. You can be an interim distance, and you think about people that work in stamping factories, and things where you have a repeated sound over and over. You can have hearing loss over a long period of time if you get exposed to the same sound over, and over, and over again. We don’t worry about that really that much for cetaceans when it comes to this, because they’re not, you know, they’re not in proximity long enough to be really injured.
N: And once you drive the monopile in, it’s there, you don’t have to keep hammering.
D: Yeah, it is important actually Nora, to think, to be thorough about the sources of sound, if we’re going to talk about sound in siting windfarms because they do have to figure out what the bottoms made of. [N: yeah, right] So, they can know how much of a hammer they’re going to need, how deep they can go, and all these sorts of things. So, there are quote/unquote seismic sources, but there, you know the bigger term is geophysical.
So geophysical exploration is also done for research, right? It happens off the coast of North Carolina to look at tidal wave danger, actually, to be honest. So, it’s using sound, which is really the most effective means of getting through the water, and to explore things given any distance. And so, the wind, siting windfarms, does use these kinds of sources, but it’s a huge, there’s a huge difference between that and what’s used for oil and gas exploration. Primarily because for two reasons, two big reasons: one, is that if you look at the size of a wind farm compared to the size of an oil field, they are very different. The wind farm areas are smaller. [N: okay]
The other one is, you know, if you’re driving a monopile 20 meters into the surface, 20 meters below the surface, you only need to know the top 20, or 40, or 50 meters, right? For oil and gas, those deposits can be kilometers underground [N: wow] Right. And so, you have to get enough energy into water and then into the ground, it goes down to a kilometer or more and comes back out again. So, the actual source level is much higher for the oil and gas, just because they have to get deeper into the sediment.
N: Okay, so basically this is another point in offshore winds favor over fossil fuel extraction. Yes, they still have to survey the ocean floor before hammering down the piles of the wind turbines, but the difference in scale is important. Wind farms cover much smaller areas compared to the oil and gas seismic surveying; where they are essentially mowing the lawn all over the ocean searching for oil and gas deposits deep under the ocean floor, which also requires a greater source of sound to see further into the ocean floor. So, in effect oil and gas puts more noise pollution into the ocean than offshore wind. Now we’re going to breakdown how sound works underwater, to better understand why noise pollution is bad for marine wildlife, and specifically whales.
So, if I were, let’s say you’re guest lecturing for like the third-grade class… [D: yeah yeah] And you were explaining seismic surveying, and how using sound energy to basically see the ocean floor and see into the ocean floor, how would you explain that?
D: Yeah, really good question! So, sound moves through the water, very, much more quickly than it does in air. Depending on the frequency, can also travel quite large distances, and especially at the low frequencies. And when I mean low, and this is sort of the 50 hertz range, which is, we can certainly hear that, we hear reasonably well from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. So, 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. It’s actually when you put it up against the cetaceans, it’s not a very impressive range.
Anyway, so you create this sound source the sound moves through the water and it reflects off things in the water, which is basically a sonar application or an echolocation application, like the toothed whales have. But when that sound gets from the surface, in this case, for the geophysical sources down into the bottom, it reflects and refracts through things in the bottom depending on how dense they are. So, oil and gas are less dense than rock, right? And so given that they can, the geophysicist can, recreate a picture of the bottom and what’s at what depth and layer based on, how that sound bounces – through the bottom, bounces back out of the bottom, and comes back up through the water, and you receive it at the surface. So, you have to make the sound and receive it to get the information, which is also part of the reason it has to be loud [N: got it]
So, it’s really is most effective means of doing that. You can drill and core, right? You can drill cores, but then you’re getting one sample at one tiny little point. Whereas the sound can illuminate, for lack of a better term, because we’re such visual creatures, illuminate huge areas in a relatively short period of time. It puts a lot of energy into the water.
N: And, you’ve just described also how echolocating odontocetes, or toothed whales, perceive their environment; so, we’re directly affecting them.
D: Yeah, so we’ve got the echolocation for sure, and for the most part that’s pretty high frequency [N: okay] So, for example, bottlenose dolphin, most people are familiar with, the prime, the loudest part of their echolocation click is at 70 kilohertz, so it’s well above what we can hear. There’s some energy down lower; so, if you have a hydrophone in the water dolphins come by and they happen to be clicking but you hear sort of [click noise] because you’ll just hear in the lower, very lower, end of what they’re making.
So, that, those really high frequencies are good over very short distances, relatively speaking, short distances. For imaging things, which is what they do, bats do the same thing. The large whales though, they use primarily lower frequencies. And, that’s where we start to get this overlap of things like piledriving and seismic sources overlapping in the frequency range that the whales trying to use.
N: Doug then goes on to explain the different levels of impact that noise from piledriving and offshore wind construction can have on our great whales on the East Coast.
D: Right, all these animals that use those low frequencies and have to have to deal with that localized piledriving for some period of time.
N: Okay. So, it has the potential to disrupt important breeding grounds?
D: Yeah, that so the way that we look at those disturbances, if we… Then we have this intermediate area of behavioral effects. And what I mean by that, is changing the behavior of animals, either their local motor behavior, like where they go where they swim, how they swim, how they dive. But also, their acoustic behavior, right. So how much calling are they doing, does it interrupt their calling patterns, that sort of thing. And so those things are they are difficult enough just to qualify, they can be trickier to then translate from well you’ve documented this change, right, they dive less or they dive more or they know they change their vocal patterns. What does that mean to that long term, right?
So, this idea of disrupting a breeding ground. If you turn something on, and all the singing humpbacks stopped and took off, you know didn’t show back up again, that’s a big problem, right? If you can detect a relatively minor change in singing behavior that happens just during the piling, and then after it’s over it stops, then it’s just a different question. Think about how much of an impact is that right?
But as far as the sound itself goes, no, it’s pretty easy for people to put themselves in the place where they were dealing with the acoustic disturbance, right? And the interesting thing about sound, if you think about it, you walk into a room and there’s a bad smell whatever that smell happens to be. You stay in that room long enough your nasal fatigue, as it’s called, you just kind of stop smelling it [N: you get used to it] Exactly step out and step back in, you’re going to smell it. Somebody new comes in, they’re going to smell it. You don’t have that same luxury, with sound – your system just will not stop responding.
N: So, its continually assaulting your senses?
D: Yeah. Definitely, and that’s why we have like noise regulations in workplaces, right? OSHA, the OSHA regulations for how much noise should be exposed to all your work are there for everybody to read. And so, because what it does is it either can have, you can get that level that’s causes injury. O the other one that that we really started to get a little bit is that it causes stress. Right, so if you think about, if there’s a jackhammer out your window all day at work, at the end of the day, you’re going to be like gripping the steering wheel on your way home; or, these days who knows what your gripping working from home.
Anyway, so those are important things to take into account. But again, stepping back from, to constructing wind farms, the monopiling, piling is definitely loud, there’s no there’s no two ways about it. But it is something you can mitigate much easier than you can mitigate something like this, like a seismic air gun array survey, and its relatively short time. [N: Okay, great]
N: Now for the exciting part, the WOW proposal. In the interim between our first conversation and our second interview, the WOW proposal went from being a proposal to an awarded grant – so, congratulations to Doug and the rest of the team, which includes over a dozen partner research institutions and organizations. The Department of Energy has awarded the proposal a $7.5 million grant to look at the impacts of offshore renewable wind development on wildlife.
As Doug describes it, the WOW project is a science-based toolkit for government regulatory agencies, for industry, for as many stakeholders as they can engage to move through this development in a data informed fashion. The first year of the project will be focused on determining what data is already available. Wind energy developers have already supported a lot of offshore surveys and data collection, including occurrence maps and density maps for wildlife (we’re talking whales, birds, bats, and turtles) in these areas of interest. Once they have a handle on existing data, the team will focus on developing research frameworks — figuring out what data do we have, what do we need, where the gaps? Some of these gaps will be filled by ecological modeling and statistical analysis.
The Centre for Research Ecological and Environmental Modelling at the University of St. Andrews will be one of the partners contributing to that. And, our very own Dr. Pat Halpin and his Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab will be leading the data synthesis component.
All of this will inform risk assessment frameworks; in other words, determining what is the risk that a developer will negatively impact wildlife in offshore wind sites. One cool part of the research effort will include site monitoring, to collect both pre and post construction data. For example, testing whether that bubble net or cofferdam, as Doug spoke about earlier in the episode, is indeed muffling the sound enough so that you’re in danger North Atlantic right whale isn’t fleeing important breeding grounds. Or, your beaked whale isn’t deep diving away from the sound and expending valuable energy. Doug goes into detail about some of those monitoring tools in the interview. The project will also be supporting the development of new tech to monitor and mitigate impacts. And finally, all of this work will be shared in an open-source system DOE, developers, and the stakeholder community.
N: My real question was how does WOW play into all this, and how will it help us transition to offshore renewable wind?
D: Yeah, yeah, no it’s a really good question in a couple of ways. I think that the easiest way to answer it is that we are, a lot of these basic potential impacts have already been defined, right? We’re worried about right whales deviating around feeding areas, we’re worried about, you know, the potential impact on benthic communities…which we’re not going to look at, but we’re also we’re worried about birds and bats once the turbines are up. But for the marine mammals and in the water, and the sound part of it, we actually have quite a lot more information than it may at first seem, because there there’s been construction offshore in a lot of places in the world, even where there have been baleen whales, right? So, for example, in the in the Arctic we bowhead whales, which are close relatives of right whales, have had to contend with offshore seismic surveys but also construction.
So, piledriving, like monopiles, even if you do run on coast, still couples into the water. So, we have you know we have quite a lot of…and, this is not necessarily data that awhile project is going to explicitly fold into some of these frameworks, but it’s data that we already have in our minds. It helps us think about well where should we be worried, how should we address those concerns with right whales, and you know, wind development off Long Island, for example, right?
So, we sit down with the data that we have, which is quite a lot, and construct these frameworks, the research frameworks, the risk assessment frameworks, and you know to a certain extent we let those tell us how we direct those efforts. And there’s certainly going to be some good research done as part of the WOW project, right? Because we have these ecosystem regional ecosystem studies, but part of our contribution is also helping to make sure that those studies, whether it’s Long Island, or in New England, or Virginia, are well designed and well informed as to answering those questions. So, we’re going to both do the research as well as help inform other research, and future research.
N: So good news is we have some research already [D: yeah] to throw at this, and I believe you had previously described it as a science-based toolkit; that’s what the wow proposal is developing this toolkit, right?
D: Yup, that’s part of it, and actually doing some field research, right, to actually collect data where we can be useful.
N: Ooh, tell me more about that, that’s the fun part, right?
D: Yeah, so that is the fun part. So, what we proposed was two, what we called integrated regional ecosystem studies. So, we proposed off New England, off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and we proposed a study off Long Island New York. And the part of the reason we did that is because the New England sites are getting ready to start construction. Vineyard Wind One is supposed start Q2 of 2022. There’s been quite a lot of data collected already before construction as part of the permitting process, and as part of the various concerns that people have; so, but we thought we could be effective during construction and post construction.
Long Island on the other hand is probably a year behind that maybe… So, we might be able to do some pre data collections and pre construction data collection, and some during. And what that consists of, is a variety of things. Passive acoustic studies; which you know basically putting out sensors in the area of interest, and listening for what’s going on, right? So, the large whales in particular, well not particularly, large whales make low frequency sounds that travel well through the ocean. And so, you can put sensors around to listen to them, and it’s quite clever works very well, of course is predicated on the fact that they make sound, and so if they don’t, system doesn’t tell you anything.
N: These passive acoustic monitoring systems are just underwater microphones [D: that’s it] dropped in the ocean
D: yeah, and they’re just recording, yeah
N: And then the data is collected via satellite, or they have to be physically picked up by boats – how does that work?
D: Some of both. So, there are long term packages that just sit on the bottom and record, and you have to go pick them up. They can store a lot of data. You can leave that one out for a year. It’s a lot of data, but you go through with clever tools to pick out sounds of right whales or fin whales, or whatever you’re listening for. Some of them are tied to satellites. Quite effectively transmitting detections, in particular. So, there’s a group, Mark Baumgartner is an investigator in Woods Hole. He and his lab put together some very nice real time detection buoys that sit out there and listen; they send back, they do processing onboard, and they send those detections back to be confirmed. And they say all the right whale was in the area, at this time right.
N: And they have to be making sound the first place, right?
D: They do, they do. And, one of the kind of kickers is that one of the potentials for disturbance is that a loud sound, or series of sounds, or whatever, changes the vocal behavior of an animal, right? It may, it might make them less vocal, it might make them more vocal, but not knowing that is what’s challenging, right? So, if we knew, for example, that if we made a disturbing sound they doubled their vocal rate, well that’s brilliant, right? Because then we could just sit out there, and say “Oh well they doubled their vocal rate so they’re disturbed.” Problem is, we don’t know how they respond. Their vocal behavior, how their vocal behavior changes, in the context of some kind of disturbance, right? We do have other data like from bowheads again. So, using that comparative approach is really important to fill in the gaps that we don’t have.
The passive acoustic systems are one. And there are others that are actually pretty cool that they can be put in a mode where they actually float, and they just they just sort of migrate around and they get georeferenced. So, we know where they are all the time. And, you can, yeah, so you could put him around a construction site, which is one of our plans, working very closely with the developers because there’s safety and ships and all the stuff going on so we have to be very careful about that. But working in an area to get at some of these basic questions of how does this activity disturb the animals, in some way right? And so those some of those basic questions we don’t have answers to yet, so that’s one of the things that we’re going to do.
And the way we set it up, in the proposal, was to say okay we’re going to work with the developers, which we’re doing anyway and say okay. They’re going to say, we’re going to do construction in March and April in this location, and we say okay, great! We’re going to ship out there – we’ll get some tags, we’ll get some people, and we’ll actually go out and do a natural experiment, right?
The activity is happening anyway, it’s all permitted, like nobody’s worried about belayed the concerns of killing animals, or driving all away, or whatever; but we still want to know how much they do respond right so we can plug it in for next time, right? And so, we get out there during construction, and do the experiment. Sorry, I’m making it making it sound easier than it is, because it’s pretty complicated. But it’s then, we’re, you know, we’re conducting an experiment without having to put more sound into the water, right? Because we’re doing it with activity that’s already happening.
N: Right. And, you had mentioned floating microphones as well; and, you said they could keep track, keeping track… are they keeping track of the animals? Sort of like creating a 3D map through sound, is that correct?
D: It can do, yeah. So, by having multiple sensors, an animal in the middle of that sensor array, if you will, we can process the arrival time of those signals at the different sensors, and actually locate where the animal is – and… ideally in 3D, but more commonly in 2D, right? So, just an XY location. So, you know if they’re, if they’ve moved out of an area, right? If there are no sounds in one area, and there’s tons of sounds in the other area, then you could…which is different than it was before… then you could say, well you know, they probably did move over there.
N: That’s so cool.
D: Yeah, so that’s one of the big tools, another one, is putting tags on animals, right? So, and they fall generally into two categories; one is a more permanent attachment of a satellite link to transmitter. So those, which can also measure dive behavior, and some of them are getting to the point where they can actually measure some acoustics. Those are pretty expensive these days still but that technology is coming. But nonetheless the satellite link one so you can track the animals reasonably well, although there’s lots of error in some of the satellite systems, from those tags that you attached the animals for days to weeks.
The shorter-term ones are higher data rate, and they do things like measure the movement of the animal. So, they have, think of it actually is like putting an iPhone on the back of a whale, because it’s got the same sensors in it that that your phone knows to flip the screen. [N: whoa] They’re accelerometers right, there just measuring acceleration. And so, between those and a digital compass and gyroscope, you can figure out the energetics of the animal – you know, is it upside down, to the right side up, because it how hard is it swimming, like how hard is it beating its tail. All of that stuff laid down on the tag, with acoustics and with depth, right? So, we got a really good profile of what the animals are doing well there other swimming around.
N: Amidst this construction in the ocean [D: exactly] Really cool. You also mentioned frameworks for research to standardize how this research is going to happen going forward – can you tell me a little bit more about that?
D: Yup, there are couple things on that. One is to help identify where your gaps are, right? Like what do we know about this species in relation to that sound? And, you know this time of year? Also, data standardization is big, it’s a big thing. So, Pat Halpin’s lab, the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke is going to be is spearheading that. And so, data standardization is an important thing, so that we can make the most out of all these data, because it just takes so much time to try and translate them into something that’s comparable to other datasets. And so, standardizing those data is really important. So that’s, that, those particular frameworks are that’s kind of the vision for that.
The other main set of frameworks of the risk assessment ones, right? And so, the companies that are making these decisions about investing in, you know, this particular area, that particular area. One of their, one of the really important tools is, what’s the risk? I mean what’s the operational risk in terms of operating in that particular environment? What are the potential risks for species that may be there that they’re going to have to mitigate their activities for? So, putting together risk assessment frameworks is a really important part of what we’re going to try to help do. Because it among, you know many things, is a really important tool to understanding, you know, what those risks are and how to mitigate them, right?
N: Right. So, all of these efforts that the data collection, the data standardization, the risk assessment, they’re all sort of streamlining the entire process and getting wind up at running faster, right?
D: Well, and you know, in a responsible way as we can, right? So, in there, not, you know, I wouldn’t it’s not that all the efforts are trying to just go into making good environmental impact statements, right? It’s also how does the company decide to deploy its resources during construction, right? For doing mitigation and monitoring of those activities which they are going to be required to do by the agencies, but then how to, how to best, construct those programs is also going to be ascertained by these kinds of efforts.
What I’m excited about is working with this great team of people! And, the, and you know, the partners that we already have that have committed to working with us – from, you know, from the developers to the regional wildlife science entity to, you know, some of the NGO’s and try to build this, continue to build this community. Because we’re not starting it, you know, we’re just going to try and help out of you know folks who really want to do the best job in getting this technology in the water to, you know, get us to renewable energy. So, that for me, that’s a big exciting part of it. I mean at the field research is always one of the most exciting and important things to me, right? That’s what I’ve done for a long time. But, the opportunity to work with this incredible group of folks is really quite an honor.
[Whale vocalizing/ whale song]
N: So, whales and wind…perhaps at first pass, not so obvious a connection. But our great whales fertilize phytoplankton growth – which are tiny green algae who soak up the carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, cooling our planet, while producing up to 80% of the oxygen on planet earth. So, without renewable energy, we keep polluting and heating our atmosphere, and without great whales, we lose our oxygen supply. Turns out, the very same wind that powered my catamaran towards the humpbacks on their breeding grounds in Hawai’i, can work in tandem with the great whales to solve some of our environmental problems.
I’m excited to see how offshore wind will develop with the guidance of the WOW project – sailing us towards the carbon neutral future we so desperately need, while protecting our valuable wildlife and ecological systems that maintain our planet’s health, and advancing science along the way.
[Music – Joe Morton, “Oyster Waltz” (instrumental)]
You’ve been listening to Seas the Day. We’re on social media, Instagram and Twitter @seasthedaypod
Thank you, thank you to Doug Nowacek and Steph Hillsgrove.
Today’s episode was written and produced by Nora Ives with support from Stephanie Hillsgrove and the rest of the Seas the Day team.
Our theme music, The Oyster Waltz, was written and recorded by Joe Morton.
For more about today’s episode, including links and other content mentioned in this episode, check out our website at sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday
Thank you for listening!
Galford, Chris. (2021, March 31st). Biden administration announces 30 GW offshore wind plan. Daily Energy Insider. https://dailyenergyinsider.com/news/29720-biden-administration-announces-30-gw-offshore-wind-plan/
Hartman, Liz. (2016, September 9th). Computing America’s Offshore Wind Potential. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/computing-america-s-offshore-wind-energy-potential
Shin, Lora. (2018, June 15th). Renewable Energy: The Clean Facts. National Resource Defense Council. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/renewable-energy-clean-facts
Witman, S. (2017, September 13th ). World’s Biggest Oxygen Producers Living in Swirling Ocean Waters. EOS: Science News by AGU. https://eos.org/research-spotlights/worlds-biggest-oxygen-producers-living-in-swirling-ocean-waters
Yong, Ed. (2021, November 3rd). The Enormous Hole that Whaling Left Behind. The Atlantic.https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/11/whaling-whales-food-krill-iron/620604/
The WOW Project website
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
The Centre for Research into Environmental and Ecological Modeling, University of St. Andrews
Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Duke University
Mark Baumgartner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Medusa at Sea: technological advances in ocean sampling.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution