Underwater Mics To Study Turbine Impact

OCEAN CITY — After a successful test in the Chesapeake last week, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers next week will drop microphones off the coast of Ocean City to begin to study the possible short- and long-term effects of the future offshore wind energy farm on marine mammals including whales and dolphins.

In August, a future wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City cleared a significant hurdle with the successful lease of the designated Maryland Wind Energy Area (WEA) to a Texas-based company. The WEA is an 800,000 acre tract off the coast of Ocean City. The tract covers roughly 94 square nautical miles with its western edge just about 10 miles off the coast of the resort and extending about 30 miles out.

While the development of a vast offshore wind farm off the coast of the resort is still likely years away, already a study is being conducted to determine the potential short- and long-term impacts of the project on marine mammals that frequent the designated area. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science recently released a report on the potential impacts and is preparing to conduct a practical study in an attempt to bear out its findings, including the anchoring of underwater microphones to the ocean floor in the WEA off the coast of Ocean City.

Before that larger study could begin, however, the UMCES under the direction of Dr. Helen Bailey, had to test the underwater microphones closer to shore before tacking the larger offshore project. Last week, Bailey and her team installed their underwater microphones in an area off Solomon’s Island in the Chesapeake to practice the deployment and test the equipment before the larger effort off the coast of Ocean City.

With those preliminary tests completed, the UMCES team is now ready to deploy their microphones in the WEA off the coast of Ocean City. The microphones are expected to be lowered and anchored off the coast of the resort next week between Tuesday and Thursday and remain out there for as long as two years. The microphones will continuously record sounds produced by large whales and other marine animals. The study will collect two years of base-line data that can be used to determine the design of the future wind farm, how to minimize the impact of construction noise, other environmental impacts and how to facilitate ocean planning in the area.

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While the study will help determine the short- and long-term impact of a massive wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, UMCES researchers are particularly considered with the possible environmental impacts during the development phase. Clearly, constructing as many as 40 huge offshore wind turbines off the coast will require a significant amount of vessels, equipment and manpower and will take a considerable amount of time. For that reason, construction noise is of particular concern to researchers because of its potential to harm sound-sensitive whales and other marine mammals.

For example, the loud sounds emitted during pile driving could potentially cause hearing damage, mask communication or disorient animals and fish as they move out of the area to avoid the noise. There is also a risk of marine animals being injured by ships or being disturbed by vessel movements associated with surveying and installation activities.

In the long term, researchers believe there could be an environmental benefit to a vast wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City. For example, wind turbines may act as artificial reefs and increase food sources. They could also provide a de facto marine reserve because of restrictions on boating and fishing around the wind turbines. In the meantime, however, UMCES researchers are directing much of their efforts on the impacts during the construction and installation of the turbines.