The carcass of a young humpback whale washed ashore Friday morning in Jamestown, Rhode Island, causing experts to think that a nearby offshore wind turbine may be to blame.
Rescue workers and two veterinarians from a nearby aquarium collected samples from the dead whale, and suspect that the nearby Block Island offshore wind farm could be responsible for the whale’s death. Noise from the turbine allegedly hampers the sonar that whales use to navigate and communicate.
“If necropsy shows that a perfectly healthy whale beached itself where offshore wind turbines do exist, they need to really check what kind of sound these things are putting out,” Bonnie Brady, director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association who regularly discusses the impacts of noise on marine mammals, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “There have been an unusual amount of strandings this year.”
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.
“This was a humpback whale, other whale species use different frequencies of sound,” Brady said. “Vibrations from the spinning wind turbines create noise that can be heard under the water line. NOAA needs to do some long term investigation in amount of the stranding that have occurred. The possibility that it is wind turbines is something we need to know now, not later.”
Roughly 46 dead humpback whales have washed ashore on the Atlantic coast since January, prompting concern from NOAA.
“[It is an] unusual mortality event,” Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic region of NOAA, told The Jamestown Press. “A stranding that is unexpected; involved a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”
When workers construct offshore wind turbines, they use a loud pile driver to anchor the windmill to the seabed. Water magnifies sounds, so underwater the pile driver’s noise can reach levels up to 220 decibels. Putting this number into perspective, 150 decibels of sound can burst human eardrums, and 185 to 200 decibels is the range usually considered to be the threshold for causing human death.
The noise generated by wind turbines affected the sonar that whales use to navigate, causing them to beach themselves. There are several commercial offshore wind farms close to where the whales beached themselves.
“My personal opinion is that it could be a consequence of wind farms and the amount of sand in the water,” John Cresswell, chairman of the Felixstowe Volunteer Coast Patrol Rescue Service, told The Times after a family of whales beached themselves near him. “If you stop the boat off the coast you can feel the vibrations and hear the noise.”
The sheer loudness of the turbines can also maim and kill fish. The noise produced when building the turbines poses a particular danger for fish with an organ highly sensitive to acoustics called a swim bladder, which adjusts a fish’s level of buoyancy and determines whether it floats or sinks.