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December 2009 Issue

FETCH–LAB researchers are working with the Rhode Island Energy Commission to determine the possible impact windmills, such as the ones pictured above, could have on neighboring humans and marine mammals.
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UC Studies Windmills' Impact on Humans, Marine Mammals

By Katy Cosse
Published December 2009

As more communities look for cleaner sources of energy, they also want to make sure those technologies are safe for their inhabitants and surrounding environment.

Those goals led two UC College of Allied Health Sciences researchers to the Rhode Island coast to study a windmill farm’s potential impact on humans and marine mammals.

Peter Scheifele, PhD, and John Clark, PhD, both communications sciences and disorders assistant professors, spent a week in August working with Rhode Island researchers to determine the impact of the planned windmill farm located a few miles off the state’s coast.

The project is part of a $15,000 grant given by the Rhode Island Energy Commission to the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) ocean engineering department.

Scheifele is the founder of the Facility for Education and Testing of Canine Hearing and Laboratory for Animal Bioacoustics (FETCH–LAB) at UC. As adjunct faculty at URI’s ocean engineering department, he was invited to bring his FETCH–LAB team out to measure the sound the farm is expected to produce.

Those measurements will turn into an environmental impact study for the energy commission.
Scheifele says it was the FETCH–LAB’s expertise in animal and human bioacoustics that led to the partnership.

“We’re doing assessments on the drill noise, construction noise, as well as the wind turbine noise—and what those impacts would be to humans and marine mammals,” says Scheifele. “The energy commission has to show there’s not going to be an impact to them. Our charge is to be the experts who say, ‘Yes, there’s an impact,’ or, ‘No, there’s not an impact.’”

In addition to the mammals on land, Scheifele says the area contains a colony of seals, minke whales and passing dolphins and humpback whales that could be affected by the windmills’ sound.

While in Rhode Island, Scheifele and Clark took sound recordings of the drill rig, ambient ocean noise and wind noise surrounding the site.

Back at UC, FETCH–LAB researchers will perform spectrographic analysis of their recordings, studying the sounds’ frequencies and sound energy. They will then compare those frequencies with the hearing thresholds of different species.

Some species may not be able to hear the windmills, but that doesn’t mean they won’t feel them, says Clark.
“The sounds of the windmill are not really any louder than, say, traffic noise,” he says. “But they are very low frequency.

“Low frequency sounds can sometimes travel through walls and around doors—it tends to bother people because it’s more intrusive.”

Scheifele suspects sleep deprivation from low-frequency sounds could be the cause of another phenomenon he and Clark are investigating for the impact study: Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS).

WTS describes a collection of reported adverse health effects in people and animals living near land-based wind turbines.

But, says Scheifele “whether or not an off-shore wind farm would cause WTS is unknown.”

“The wind alone in that area, coming off the North Atlantic, is far louder than anything the windmills are going to produce,” he says. “I think the question that we’re going to see is if any of the noise would radiate into the water, and will that noise affect the marine mammals and fish there.”

Scheifele and Clark will have more opportunities to study that question as more windmills are planned off the Atlantic coast. Scheifele has been asked to sit on the scientific review board for Geo-Marine, Inc., a company putting up windmills in New Jersey.

“Based on what we have done here, the FETCH–LAB is now at the top of the list of people who get called when they are going to put these windmills in and they want to know what the impact is to humans or animals,” he says. “We’re the people they call.”

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