By Eleanor Eckel, BRI Communications Coordinator
Newswise — A coyote’s lone cry punctuated the darkness as the two biologists hiked the wooded trail, parkas tightly zipped against the chill October night. They had been trekking this route every hour since dusk, winding their way to the mist nets they had set up earlier in the day. Once at a net, they slowly walked along its 36-foot length. When they discovered a northern saw-whet owl lying passively in one of the net pockets, they worked quickly, expertly untangling, banding, sampling, and measuring the tiny raptor in just minutes.
Since 2009, BRI wildlife biologist Kate Williams and others have studied the migration and movement patterns of birds and bats over the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere on the Atlantic coast. BRI biologists documented that migratory owls fly over open water, taking advantage of islands as stopover sites, and that migratory falcons will fly hundreds of miles out over the Atlantic on their way south to the Caribbean and South America. This new information initiated important discussions about how migrating birds and bats might be affected by offshore structures, such as wind turbines.
Careful siting of renewable energy development seems to play a key role in minimizing impacts to wildlife, but this requires detailed knowledge of where animals breed, winter, and migrate. To address this need, BRI established a wildlife and renewable energy program in 2009, which has evolved over the past 12 years into BRI’s Center for Research on Offshore Wind and the Environment (CROWE). Offshore wind energy is an essential component of plans to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems. According to the 2022 International Panel on Climate Change report, it is now “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the atmosphere. Fossil fuel use has significantly contributed to the acceleration of climate change impacts, and now the “scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole – and the present state of many aspects of the climate system – are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.” A path forward involves increased renewable energy technology to limit cumulative CO2 emissions.
However, as with other energy sources, offshore wind can also present risks to wildlife and their environment. BRI biologists continue to work to understand wildlife distributions and movements and to identify ways to minimize risks from offshore wind energy development.
CROWE director Kate Williams recognizes the need for rapid, renewable energy development as well as thorough wildlife risk assessments and monitoring. “We are trying to figure out how to mitigate sort of, local scale impacts to wildlife from these developments…but trying to figure out how to minimize that as much as possible for this sort of greater good of trying to figure out how to mitigate climate change to the point that we’re not going to see sort of large-scale extinctions, which is what they’re predicting right now.”
Specific research conducted by BRI staff intended to determine potential risks to wildlife from offshore wind development include bird field studies and assessments for seabirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors, acoustic studies, transmitter deployment and tracking, observational surveys (vessel- and plane-based), digital aerial surveys, stakeholder engagement and coordination, and development of siting strategies and monitoring and mitigation plans.
As with all BRI research centers and programs, the offshore wind team utilizes innovative science and cutting-edge technology to provide accurate information. High-definition digital aerial surveys involve survey planes with an array of cameras that point down to the ocean’s surface which can identify species seen in the video. Aerial surveys allow researchers to determine which species are most at risk in areas designated for proposed wind arrays, and that information can be passed on to decision makers and developers. BRI also houses a Quantitative Wildlife Ecology Research Laboratory (QWERL) that provides large scale population and distribution models that help understand population dynamics in or near offshore wind arrays. Williams notes, “it’s a rare skillset to have that degree of mathematical expertise and also have the ecological expertise to understand how to apply it.” Cutting-edge science, combined with a wide range of ecological expertise, will continue to guide BRI’s wind energy research to provide accurate information to stakeholders and policy makers.
More stories on https://briwildlife.org/bri-blog/.
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Director, Center for Research on Wind Power on the EnvironmentBiodiversity Research Institute (BRI)