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Bringing ‘Relevant Science’ to Discussion of Offshore Wind

Posted on March 14, 2023

I applaud Mary Llowe’s article of Feb 20 in ecoRI News, “Offshore Wind Supporters Angered by ‘Misleading’ Information from R.I.-Based Opposition Group.” It is supported by carefully sourced information and interviews with an expansive range of our dedicated local experts and scientists. I was interviewed and found my thoughts reliably reported.

For balance the comments from several of the members of Green Oceans, the local group questioning offshore wind, are also included. Thus, we know that Green Oceans in their own words wants “to create a safe, non-judgmental dialogue about the proposed wind farms” and “to raise questions and introduce relevant science that might broaden our understanding of the issues.”

Because I am a scientist, an oceanographer, I feel obligated to bring “relevant science” into the discussion and correct possible misinterpretations when I see them. Lisa Quattrocki Knight of Green Oceans writes “scientists are just starting to recognize the amount of oxygen produced by phytoplankton in the oceans. Now, they realize phytoplankton likely produces a majority of the planet’s oxygen.” This statement implies an immature field of study must be applied to offshore wind. This is incorrect. This statement could reduce the confidence of the general public in conclusions of scientists. In fact, the oxygen-producing role of the ocean phytoplankton was a regular part of ocean science curriculum in 1975 when I was a graduate student! Our understanding is well described for the general public here.

It is worth citing here the extensive knowledge of ocean ecosystems applied to siting Block Island’s five-turbine wind facility to create as little disturbance as possible.

The issue of whale mortality has recently loomed large in fears of negative impacts of offshore wind development. Lisa Quattrocki Knight states in a rebuttal to ecoRI’s article that “A NOAA scientist warned BOEM that offshore wind development will threaten the survival of the North Atlantic right whale population. Activities associated with construction and operation, particularly underwater sound, can threaten whale survival (for review, see Arcangeli, 2023).”

I was unable to read the article about the NOAA scientist (blocked on the web), but I did access Arcangeli, 2023. The review, “Neurobehavioral Alterations from Noise Exposure in Animals: A Systematic Review” does not specifically address impact of wind turbines on whales. Rather it addresses the noise humans have introduced into both land and sea “mainly due to vehicular, air and sea transportation.” In fact, Arcangeli et al. (2023) indicate, just as NOAA studies do, that there is a vast amount of harm to whales from vessel strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.” The authors state, “Marine life is threatened by habitat degradation due to human activities such as fishing, ship traffic, pollution, coastal anthropization, and high noise levels due to propellers and diesel engines” and “Some researchers have pointed out that the level of acidification of seas, due to higher and higher quantities of carbon dioxide dissolved in water, tends to reduce the capacity of water itself to adsorb low-frequency sounds. This phenomenon can therefore cause a further increase in underwater noise pollution.”

By citing this reference Knight implies it is relevant to the discussion of offshore wind. In fact, while it does not provide any specific information on wind turbines, it does remind us of the important perspective of weighing impacts of offshore wind development in light of the many human activities harming whales, which no one suggests we bring to a halt.

Humans are faced with a terribly difficult task due to our current reliance on fossil fuels for energy. How best do we rapidly decrease emissions of heat-trapping, polluting, and health-harming greenhouse gases? Shall we reject offshore wind as a source of renewable energy? Will solar or nuclear or increased efficiency serve us better? Do we need all of these approaches together?

Scientists have also worked hard to provide means to make these choices and compare alternative strategies to curb climate change in a balanced manner. One such approach that is designed for use by individuals without scientific backgrounds is Climate Interactive, MIT’s interactive model.

Yes — let us have a non-judgmental and safe discussion using all the tools at our disposal.

Barbara K. Sullivan-Watts, Ph.D., is a senior marine research scientist, emerita, at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and state coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby Rhode Island.


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