How Marine Wildlife can Coexist With Offshore Wind [Sponsored]

This podcast was produced for Ørsted by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.

April Reese: Offshore wind in the US is poised for a boom. States from Rhode Island on down to Virginia all have plans to ramp up offshore wind over the next decade, and the Biden administration has pledged to add 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. It’s all part of an energy overhaul that aims to swap fossil fuels for renewables, reining in climate change and protecting our planet. Curbing climate change is one of the best things we can do to protect marine species, but harnessing the wind to blow back emissions is not without its own impacts.

Of special concern are these denizens of the sea. That’s a North Atlantic right whale recorded off the Coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. North Atlantic right whales migrate in feed along the US East Coast, which is also ground zero for the US’s growing offshore wind industry. Scientific American Custom Media spoke with oceanographer Joe Brodie. He’s part of a team trying to figure out how to avoid conflicts between wind turbines and whales. After a few years as a flight attendant, he left the friendly skies for the sea.

Now, he’s the Offshore Wind Research Lead at the Rutgers Center for Ocean Observing Leadership. Joe, the North Atlantic  right whale is one of the world’s most endangered species. Only about 400 of them  are left. Can offshore wind development along the East Coast coexist with right whales? And if so, how?

Joe Brodie: I think the answer is definitely, the two can coexist. It just has to be done intelligently and with as much information as possible. The idea is… I guess a good way to put it in a term that we used to use at the airline was situational awareness, knowing what’s out there, when it’s out there, where they are, and what they’re doing is going to make all the difference.

Reese: So you’re part of a project funded by the offshore wind company Ørsted and their ocean wind project partners in New Jersey that uses acoustic monitoring to track and study whales. It’s called the ecosystem and passive acoustic monitoring project. What does that project aim to do and who’s involved?

Brodie: It is a partnership between Ørsted and then us here at Rutgers University, along with a team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution led by Mark Baumgartner, and then another team at the University of Rhode Island led by Dr. Jim Miller. What we’re trying to do is use acoustic sensors that are deployed on a variety of platforms, such as stationary buoys, and then also underwater robots, gliders that can move through the water to listen for vocalizing right whales. The idea is, can you better monitor the presence or absence of the North Atlantic right whale by listening to them using autonomous sensors?

Reese: Well, tell us a little about the technology you’re using. What tools do you use to read the ocean and what kinds of data do they give to you?

Brodie: Mark Baumgartner at Woods Hole, he deployed a buoy off the coast of New Jersey here and he also deployed a buoy off of Massachusetts. And then the team at Rhode Island has another buoy that’s more of like a test platform trying out some advanced sensors that can help you triangulate the location. The buoy is really just there to have the radio transmitters and things like that on up at the surface. On the mooring itself at the bottom of the water column, that’s where his sensor, which is called the DMON, digital acoustic monitoring instrument.

It’s basically a big anchor that has got this digital sensor on it, and it’s soundproofed and insulated so that the flow of the water doesn’t interfere with the listening tool. That’s another challenge is they’ve got to install things that reduce that and there’s all sorts of technology at play to really isolate the sound so that you can really hear very well. On the glider side, so it looks like a torpedo, but it doesn’t actually have a propeller on it.

What it does is it goes up and down over and over again. And it’s a mobile platform, right? So you can explore the entire area. You’re not restricted to just that one spot where the buoy is located.

Reese: As offshore wind companies and scientists in the US explore ways to protect biodiversity around turbines, they’re taking a cue from Europe where the wind industry is much more mature. Victoria Todd is the director and chief scientist for ocean science consulting in Dunbar, Scotland. And for years, she’s worked with companies and regulators to minimize the impacts of offshore energy projects on marine wildlife. The science shows that climate change is one of the biggest threats to ocean health.

Expanding offshore wind is seen as key to the energy transition and reducing the effects of warming on marine wildlife. But while we know wind is an important part of the solution, we also know that offshore wind development is not harmless.

Victoria Todd: The best way to protect marine life, in my opinion, is advanced planning. Perform baseline studies prior to the  wind farm development, such that we can understand the use of the area by the various animals at different times of the year. In addition, one can also use pingers, which are actively producing noise emitting devices that can send out a warning signal to the marine mammals theoretically to pre-warn the animals that there is going to be a noise emitting event about to happen and that they can perhaps vacate the area.

Reese: Well, what would you say the US can learn from Europe as we expand offshore wind development here?

Todd: Well, I think from what I’ve seen so far, they’re managing to do quite a good job of the planning elements of it. We have obviously very, very good research institutes on the East Coast. I used to be at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is a very experienced and competent and longstanding marine institute, and we have some great universities and some of the large whale experts, but they are also seeking our advice for these projects as well.

Reese: In putting their heads together, scientists and offshore wind companies hope to make watching out for whales and other marine wildlife part of the industry’s M.O. as turbines multiply off the U.S. coastline. That’s good for the whales and good for the climate.

Brodie: One of the reasons we want renewable energy is we’re trying to reduce the impact we’re having on the climate. We’re trying to reduce ocean acidification. We’re trying to do all these things that are ultimately to protect our environment. But you don’t want to damage the environment in the process, right? You have to preserve what you have while you’re trying to prevent further damage. It’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure that it’s done the right way.

Reese: This podcast was produced by Scientific American Custom Media and made possible through the support of Ørsted.

North Atlantic right whale recording provided with the kind permission of the Watkins Marine Mammal Sound Database / New Bedford Whaling Museum.