There are pros and cons to being land-dwelling creatures. A con is that we can’t really float around in the air like we can in water, so that’s kind of a bummer. A pro is that on land there is a significantly reduced chance of drowning, which is kind of awesome. I guess we probably evolved for the best.
However, for this land-lubber, spending so much time above sea level makes the ocean one big, blue mystery. What goes on under the surface? Who lives there? Mermaids? I have no idea. Sometimes, even though I know intellectually that the ocean is teeming with life, it’s easy to just view the wide expanse of water as…nothing. Anything we do out there doesn’t count. It’s the ocean. It’s not like we have an effect on anything.
Of course, we do have an effect. Pollution is obviously a big problem, so big in fact that it’s drawn the attention of the United Nations. But it’s not just trash that can muck up the oceans. Noise can, as well.
It’s weird to think of something as unavoidable as sound as having a negative impact on the natural world, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it does, at least to some extent. Some birds go out of their way to nest in quieter locations. Plants are effected as well, but it’s not universally harmful. Of special concern are marine animals because of the reliance on sonar due to lack of light. As humans continue to expand our reach by developing off-shore, monitoring how our noise is impacting life below the surface is especially important.
A new tool developed by scientists at the University of St Andrews and SMRU Marine could help us monitor the situation. Called the Interim PCOD (Population Consequences of Disturbance) Model, it will help scientists predict how offshore development will affect five species: bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoise, minke whale and harbor and grey seals. It was designed specifically to monitor marine animals off the coast of the United Kingdom and is being made available for free.
The ability to predict the impact of offshore development is becoming more and more important as offshore energy developments gain speed. According to the National Resources Defense Council, there are 53 offshore energy project in 10 European countries with nine more under construction. The UK hosts the largest offshore wind farm in the world with 100 turbines.
It’s important to remember that, just because something is better for the environment, like renewable energy, doesn’t mean it’s without its costs. If we’ve learned anything from the past century of economic development, it should be that our actions have consequences. As they say, the road to hell was paved with good intentions. We need to remain vigilant when developing new technologies so we can make sure not to do any more damage to fragile ecosystems.
Even though this tool has some predictive powers, it’s not operating off complete information. We actually know surprisingly little about how noise effects marine mammal behavior or their ability to survive. Developers did what they could to close the gaps in their knowledge, but a lot more study is needed to really come to grips with how the noise we make effects our water-dwelling friends.
Image credit: Jason Pratt via Flickr