Are wind turbines killing whales?

Posted: March 3, 2016 by oldbrew in Ocean dynamics, turbines, wind

Struggling whale [image credit: BBC]

Struggling whale [image credit: BBC]

Between January 9 and February 4 this year, 29 sperm whales got stranded and died on English, German and Dutch beaches. Climate Change Dispatch investigates.

Environmentalists and the news media offered multiple explanations – except the most obvious and likely one: offshore wind farms. Indeed, that area has the world’s biggest concentration of offshore wind turbines, and there is ample evidence that their acoustic pollution can interfere with whale communication and navigation.

However, Britain’s Guardian looked for answers everywhere but in the right place. That’s not surprising, as it tends to support wind energy no matter the cost to people or the environment. After consulting with a marine environmental group, the paper concluded: “The North Sea acts as a trap.… It’s virtually impossible for [whales] to find their way out through the narrow English Channel.”

No it’s not. These intelligent animals would naturally have found their way to and through the Channel by simply following the coast of England or continental Europe. But the author seems determined to pursue his “explanation,” even when it becomes increasingly illogical. “The [trapped] whales become dehydrated because they obtain their water from squid,” he argues, before acknowledging that “the dead Dutch and German animals were well-fed,” and that the North Sea’s squid population has increased in recent years.

The article discards Royal Navy sonar and explosives, because “big naval exercises in UK waters are unusual in midwinter.” Finally, the author concludes with this quote from his purported expert: “When there’s a mass stranding, it’s always wise to look at possible human effects. But, at the moment, I don’t see anything pointing in that direction.”

He should look a bit harder. Not everyone is so blind. Indeed, “researchers at the University of St. Andrews have found that the noise made by offshore wind farms can interfere with a whale’s sonar, and can in tragic cases see them driven onto beaches where they often die,” a UK Daily Mail article  observed. It is certainly possible that permanent damage to the cetaceans’ middle and inner ears, and thus to their built-in sonar, can result from large air guns used during seismic surveys and from violent bursts of noise associated with pilings being rammed into the rock bed.

Wind promoters themselves admit that their pile-driving can be heard up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) underwater, and can be harmful to whales that happen to be nearby. But unless these injuries cause external bleeding, they are very difficult to detect.  Natural phenomena such as seaquakes, underwater volcanic eruptions and meteorites crashing into the oceans have likely been the cause of whale beachings throughout history, by injuring the animals’ inner ears and sonar organs, frightening and disorienting them, and causing them to seek refuge in shallow waters.

In more recent years, “military exercises using mid-frequency sonar have been linked quite clearly to the disorientation and death of beached whales,” says The Guardian. Low frequency sonar can be even more dangerous, the Natural Resource Defense Council asserts. “Some systems operate at more than 235 decibels,” the NRDC has said, “producing sound waves that can travel across tens or even hundreds of miles of ocean. During testing off the California coast, noise from the Navy’s main low-frequency sonar system was detected across the breadth of the northern Pacific Ocean.”

The U.S. Navy itself has recognized the danger that sonar systems represent for marine mammals. As reported in Science magazine: “In a landmark study, the U.S. Navy has concluded that it killed at least six whales in an accident involving common ship-based sonar. The finding, announced late last month by the Navy and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), may complicate Navy plans to field a powerful new sonar system designed to detect enemy submarines at long distances,” despite how important that system and its submarine and surface ship counterparts are for national security. It has been said the “low-frequency active sonar” from this system would be the loudest sound ever put into the seas, The Guardian states.

But wind turbines also emit low frequency noise, including dangerous infrasound. At sea, these vibrations are transmitted via the masts to the water, and via the pilings to the rock bed. They can travel up to 31 miles (50 kilometers). Granted, the acoustic pollution caused by sonar – particularly powerful navy systems – is greater than that from wind turbines. But wind turbine noise and infrasound are nearly constant, last as long as the turbines are in place and come from multiple directions, as in the areas where the whales were recently stranded.

The article continues to a discussion of other problems linked to wind turbines.

Full report: Are wind turbines killing whales? – Climate Dispatch

  1. Joe Public says:

    Strange that that question should be posed.

    Greenpeace rhetorically asked similar questions:

    That then begs a question as to how they got lost? Were they chasing prey? Was it freak weather? Were they affected by something humans did – busy shipping lanes, seismic testing, military noise or something else? There are also the ‘invisible’ threats that whales in our seas carry, most notably a heavy burden of toxic chemicals which could have played a part somehow.

    [my bold]

    For some reason, the possibility that the local turbines might have affected the situation seems to have completely escaped their bio-diversity writer.

    Their author ignored many requests for an answer.

  2. oldbrew says:

    Maybe they came across a rogue submarine 😐

  3. p.g.sharrow says:

    Humans are animals of a visual world. We seek food and navigate through a world that we can see.
    Whales are creatures of an acoustical world. To find food and navigate they find their way with images created with sound.

    Now imagine, Bright lights shinning from every one of these noise makers, blinding you to the world around you. Even worse, the wind machines are intermittent in their sound generation. Changing in on or off as well as “Brightness” as the wind changes in strength. Trapping the animals in mid travel.
    Small wonder that the whales become confused and then exhausted from milling around in their attempts to get past the deafening area of the wind farm. When whales get sick or exhausted they often instinctively beach themselves to escape drowning. They were originally creatures of the land that have evolved to be creatures that live on the sea…pg

  4. dennis clark says:

    Having spent many years ‘chasing’ submarines for excercise purposes I can honestly say that we’d never used active in channel waters, generally because they are too shallow to operate submarines in peacetime. So sonar is probably out. Noise generated by wind turbines however is intermittent and varies in both frequency and volume, this being a much more likely cause of disorientation.

  5. oldbrew says:

    OK thanks Dennis.

  6. tallbloke says:

  7. oldbrew says:

    Magnetic navigation problems?

    ‘A team of scientists has found that whales seem to have a sensitive magnetic sense that may lead them to their death on the beach if they encounter magnetic anomalies near the shore.’

    ‘But the research showed that the whales and dolphins, of many different species, tended to be beached at points where the magnetic field was weakest. Scientists say this finding might lead to an answer to the mystery.’

    ‘In every wind turbine and generator you will find one or more incredibly strong magnets. Simplified, the rotating shaft of a wind turbine is connected to one or more strong magnets, usually neodymium magnets, these magnets turn relative to an assembly of coiled wire, generating voltage in the coil.’

  8. oldbrew says:

    ‘Poland To Restrict Building Of Wind Turbines Close To Homes’

    ‘According to, the [Polish] law would force a wind farm to be built away from any residential property at a distance of more than “10 times the height of the wind turbine,” which effectively translates to over 1.5 km. For a nation of 38.5 million people this is much easier said than done, and a number of turbines may already contravene the law.’

  9. Lowry Dave says:

    Speaking on offshore wind farms, it seems that they also have a role in climate change. From what I read here (, it appears that the fact that the Northern Europe warms more than the rest of the world is related to the offshore wind farms in the Baltic. More than that, wind turbines seem to affect humans and animals in the same time…..