World’s largest wind farm study finds sleep disturbances aren’t related to turbine noise

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

During the Abbott government, the often recalcitrant Senate cross bench was thrown a big, juicy bone plainly intended to sweeten their disposition toward government bills which needed their support to pass. The anti- wind farm Senators were outraged with the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) 2015 report on wind farms which found no strong evidence of health effects from turbine exposure. There have been 25 reviews with similar findings published since 2003. The government may have promised these Senators the gift of the office of the National Wind Farm Commissioner which by February 2015 had received just 42 complaints about 12 wind farms, seven of which have not even been built.

In August 2015, the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines published its report. The Committee was chaired by Senator John Madigan, an open opponent of wind farms, and consisted of eight members. Six of these had form in savagely criticising wind farms. The content of their final report was therefore utterly predictable, with Labor’s Senator Anne Urquhart’s minority dissenting report shining like a beacon of respect for evidence.

There was no greater display of the naked demonising agenda of the Madigan-aligned group’s anti wind farm show trial than the total absence in their report of any mention of the world’s largest and most important study of the question of whether living near wind farms was harmful to health.

Health Canada’s Wind Turbine Noise and Health study published its preliminary findings on October 30, 2014. Senator Urquhart’s minority report noted that many submissions to the inquiry recognised the great contribution of the Health Canada “Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study” to the body of knowledge on the potential impacts of wind farms on human health. But the 181-page report made no mention of the study.

The study data were collected between May and September 2013 from adults aged 18 to 79 (606 males, 632 females), randomly selected from each household. They lived between 0.25 and 11.22km from wind turbines in two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

In March, the Health Canada study group published its full findings in a series of open-access papers in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the world’s most cited acoustical research journal, and in Sleep, a leading journal in sleep research. Here is a summary of some of its chief findings.

Do wind turbines increase the prevalence of health problems and sleep disturbance?

The researchers assessed self-reported sleep quality over the past 30 days using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and a wrist monitor to record the total sleep time, and the rate of awakening bouts and how long these last, for a total of 3,772 nights.

Averaged over a year, the measured sound of the turbines reached a maximum of 46 dB(A) with an average of 35.6. Forty six decibels is around the sound of a dishwasher operating in a kitchen.

Since January 2012, I have collected and catalogued a remarkable 247 different symptoms and diseases wind farm opponents claim are caused or exacerbated by wind turbines in humans and animals.

But the Health Canada study found that:

Self-reported health effects (e.g., migraines, tinnitus, dizziness, etc.), sleep disturbance, sleep disorders, quality of life, and perceived stress were not related to wind turbine noise levels.

Both self-reported and objectively measured sleep outcomes consistently revealed no apparent pattern or statistically significant relationship to wind turbine noise levels.

But, unsurprisingly, sleep was affected by whether residents had other health conditions (including sleep disorders), their caffeine consumption, and whether they were personally annoyed by blinking lights on the wind turbines.

Sleeping problems affect around 29% of all communities, regardless of whether they are near wind farms or not.

Do wind turbines cause measurable stress?

The researchers used a recognised scale to measure self-reported stress (the perceived stress scale – PSS) as well as recording hair cortisol concentrations, resting blood pressure, and heart rate.

However, the majority (77%–89%) of the variance in the perceived stress scale (PSS) scores was unaccounted for by differences in these objective measures. And wind turbine noise exposure had no apparent influence on any of them.

Again, the study concluded that the findings did not support an association between exposure to wind turbines and elevated self-reported or objectively defined measures of stress.

Do wind turbines annoy people?

Expressions such as being “hot and bothered” are well understood. When people are annoyed by something in their life, this can lead to the onset of symptoms. Being annoyed is not health problem in itself, but chronic annoyance can have health consequences.

The Health Canada study reported:

Visual and auditory perception of wind turbines as reported by respondents increased significantly with increasing wind turbine noise levels as did high annoyance toward several wind turbine features, including the following: noise, blinking lights, shadow flicker, visual impacts, and vibrations … Beyond annoyance, results do not support an association between exposure to wind turbine noise up to 46 dBA and the evaluated health-related endpoints.

The prevalence of residents reporting that they were very or extremely annoyed by wind turbine noise increased from 2.1% to 13.7% when sound pressure levels were below 30 dB compared to when the noise was between 40–46 dB.

So in summary, those who found the turbines annoying, tended to be those who lived nearer to them.

What factors predict who gets annoyed?

Even for the most annoying features, more than 86% of residents were not very or extremely annoyed by them.

There is much variation among our families, friends working environments in the way people react to noise. A 2014 review of symptoms related to modern technology (including wind turbines) found those who were more anxious, worried, concerned, or annoyed by a source that they believed to be a health risk more commonly reported symptoms than those without such beliefs.

In this Health Canada study, while proximity to the turbines was statistically significantly associated with annoyance, the relationship was weak. It was better explained by factors such as holding negative views about the visual impact of the turbines (not liking the look of them), being able to the see aircraft warning blinking lights, the perception of vibrations when the turbines were turning and high concern about physical safety. These are all perceptual variables that bothered some but not most.

Less than 10% of the participants derived personal benefit from the turbines (such as income from hosting the turbines). Deriving personal benefit had a statistically significant, although modest relationship to not being annoyed. The authors concluded:

these findings would support initiatives that facilitate direct or indirect personal benefit among participants living within a community in close proximity to wind power projects.

This suggests that strategies such as community sharing of rental incomes, offers of free electricity or home improvement and amenity payments may reduce annoyance.

If a Labor government is elected in July, the future of the ill-conceived Office of the National Wind Farm Commissioner is likely to be vulnerable, as it may well be with the expected departure of several wind farm-obsessed cross bench senators in the double dissolution, should the Coalition be returned.

State governments are increasingly removing wind farm planning barriers and the availability now of the Health Canada health report should drive another large stake through the forces determined to slow the growth of wind energy in Australia.

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A guide to using drones to study wildlife: first, do no harm

Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh

Technological advances have provided many benefits for environmental research. Sensors on southern elephant seals have been used to map the Southern Ocean, while tracking devices have given us a new view of mass animal migrations, from birds to zebras.

Miniaturisation of electronics and improvements in reliability and affordability mean that consumer drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now improving scientific research in a host of areas. And they are growing more popular for wildlife management, as well as research.

Wildlife drones can be used in many different ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. UAVs have also been shown to provide more precise data than traditional ground-based techniques when it comes to monitoring seabird colonies.

Other industries, from mining to window-cleaning, are looking at using drone technology. Some forecasts predict that the global market for commercial applications of UAVs will be valued at more than US$127 billion. Given their usefulness in the biologist’s toolkit, the uptake of UAVs for environmental monitoring is likely to continue.

But this proliferation of drones raises questions about how best to regulate the use of these aircraft, and how to ensure that wildlife do not come to harm.

A UAV-mounted camera provides an aerial view of a Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) in North Sumatra.
L. P. Koh

Wildlife disturbance

Biologists carrying out field studies are typically interested in animals’ natural state, or how their behaviour changes when conditions are altered. So it is important to know whether the UAVs disturb the animals and, if so, exactly how.

Of course, different species in different environments are likely to have very different responses to the presence of a UAV. This will also depend on the type of UAV and how it is used. Our current understanding of wildlife responses is limited.

A team of French and South African biologists observed the reaction of semi-captive and wild birds to UAVs. They found that the approach angle had a significant impact on the birds’ reaction, but approach speed, UAV colour and flight repetition did not.

In polar regions, where UAVs may be particularly useful for sampling inaccessible areas, researchers found that Adélie penguins were more alert when a UAV was in range, particularly at low altitudes.

These studies, and similar observational studies on other animals besides birds, provide an initial understanding of wildlife behaviour. But the animals’ behaviour is only one aspect of their response – we still need to know what happens to their physiology.

Cardiac bio-loggers fitted to a small number of free-roaming American black bears in northwestern Minnesota have shown that UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Even an individual in its winter hibernation den showed stress responses to a UAV flying above.

Interestingly, the bears rarely showed any behavioural response to the drones. This shows that just because animals do not appear visually disturbed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stressed.

A code of practice

We have developed a code of best practice, published today in the journal Current Biology, which seeks to mitigate or alleviate potential UAV disturbance to wildlife. It advocates the precautionary principle in lieu of sufficient evidence, encouraging researchers to recognise that wildlife responses are varied, can be hard to detect, and could have severe consequences.

Jarrod Hodgson launches a fixed-wing UAV on Macquarie Island.
J. Hodgson

It also provides practical recommendations. The code encourages the use of equipment that minimises the stimulus to wildlife. Using minimum-disturbance flight practices (such as avoiding threatening approach trajectories or sporadic flight movements) is advised. The code also recognises the importance of following civil aviation rules and effective maintenance and training schedules, and using animal ethics processes to provide oversight to UAV experiments.

The code isn’t just food for thought for biologists. It is relevant to all UAV users and regulators, from commercial aerial videographers to hobbyists. Unintentionally or otherwise, such users may find themselves piloting drones close to wildlife.

Our code urges the UAV community to be responsible operators. It encourages awareness of the results of flying in different environments and the use of flight practices that result in minimum wildlife disturbance.

Low-impact conservation

As researchers continue to develop and refine UAV wildlife monitoring techniques, research that quantifies disturbance should be prioritised. This research will need to be multi-faceted, because responses could vary between species or individuals, as well as over time and in different environments. Greater knowledge could help us to draw up species-specific guidelines for drone use, to minimise disturbance on a case-by-case basis.

UAVs are a useful wildlife monitoring tool. We need to proactively develop and implement low-impact monitoring techniques. Doing so will expand our technological arsenal in the battle to manage Earth’s precious and increasingly threatened wildlife.

The Conversation

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate and Lian Pin Koh, Associate Professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Study: Australians can be sustainable without sacrificing lifestyle or economy

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, CSIRO

A sustainable Australia is possible – but we have to choose it. That’s the finding of a paper published today in Nature.

The paper is the result of a larger project to deliver the first Australian National Outlook report, more than two years in the making, which CSIRO is also releasing today.

As part of this analysis we looked at whether achieving sustainability will require a shift in our values, such as rejecting consumerism. We also looked at the contributions of choices made by individuals (such as consuming less water or energy) and of choices made collectively by society (such as policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

We found that collective policy choices are crucial, and that Australia could make great progress to sustainability without any changes in social values.

Competing views

Few topics generate more heat, and less light, than debates over economic growth and sustainability.

At one end of the spectrum, “technological optimists” suggest that the marvellous invisible hand will take care of everything, with market-driven improvements in technology automatically protecting essential natural resources while also improving living standards.

Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to back this, particularly in protecting unpriced natural resources such as ocean fisheries, or the services provided by a stable climate. Instead the evidence suggests we are already crossing important planetary boundaries.

Other the other end of the spectrum, people argue that achieving sustainability will require a rejection of economic growth, or a shift in values away from consumerism and towards a more ecologically attuned lifestyles. We refer to this group as advocating “communitarian limits”.

A third “institutional reform” approach argues that policy reform can reconcile economic and ecological goals – and is attacked from one side as anti-business alarmism, and from the other as indulging in pro-growth greenwash.

Income up, environmental pressures down

My colleagues and I have spent much of the past two years developing a new framework to explore how Australia can decouple economic growth from multiple environmental pressures – including greenhouse emissions, water stress, and the loss of native habitat.

We use nine linked models to assess interactions between energy, water and food (and links to ecosystem services) in the context of climate change.

The National Outlook focuses on the intersection of water, energy and food.
National Outlook Report, CSIRO

The project provides projections for more than 20 scenarios, exploring different potential trends for consumption and working hours; energy and resource efficiency; agricultural productivity; new land-sector markets for energy feedstocks and ecosystem services; national and global abatement efforts, climate, and global economic growth.

While our major focus is on Australia, at the national scale, we also model what might happen globally, and at more detailed state and local scales within Australia.

We find economic growth and environmental impacts can be decoupled − in the right circumstances. National income per person increases by 12-15% per decade from now to 2050, while the value of economic activity almost triples.

In stark contrast to income, which rises across all scenarios, environmental performance varies widely. Key environmental indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, water stress, and native habitat and biodiversity are projected to more than double, stabilise, or fall across different scenarios to 2050.

As shown in the chart below, we find that energy rises in all scenarios, but that greenhouse emissions can fall at the same time – with the right choices and technologies. Water use can also rise without increasing extractions from already stressed catchments. Food output (here indicated by protein) can increase, while native habitat is restored.

Hatfield-Dodds et al (2015)

Many of the 20 scenarios explored would represent substantial progress towards sustainable prosperity.

Indeed, we find that Australia could begin to repair past damage: restoring significant areas of native habitat and achieving negative emissions (net sequestration) of greenhouse gasses.

Growth of what?

We use the normal definition of economic growth as measured by increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the value of goods and services produced in an economy – consistent with the national accounts framework.

Some authors use a different definition, most notably Herman Daly a leading advocate for a steady state economy. Daly defines growth as an increase in physical economic scale, such as resource extraction, and goes on to argue that indefinite (material) economic growth is not possible.

While this may be true, for his definition, it can be confusing for people that do not realise he is not referring to GDP growth. Indeed, Daly recently acknowledged that economic (GDP) growth is possible with finite resources and steady material throughput.

These definitions matter: we project growth (GDP – measured in real dollars, adjusted for inflation) increases by more than 160% in scenarios where domestic material extractions and throughput (measured in tonnes) decreases by around 40%.

Choosing a sustainable future

But here is the real crunch: we find these substantial steps toward sustainability could build on policy approaches that are already in place in Australia or other countries. This implies Australia could make enormous progress towards a more sustainable future without a major change in what we value.

We can be confident that a values shift is not required to achieve these outcomes – at least before 2050 – because none of the scenarios we modelled assume change in values or a new social or environmental ethic.

Instead, we show that people will make choices to change their behaviour to make the best of particular policy settings. These choices shape production and consumption.

For instance, we consider increasing Australia’s climate effort in line with other countries would be consistent with Australian public opinion and assessments of Australia’s national interest in limiting the rise in average global temperature to 2°C. So we do not interpret this as implying a change in values.

But we find collective choices are crucial. For example, individual choices about whether to drive or catch a train to work are strongly shaped by prior collective choices about transport infrastructure. Collective choices are often, but not always implemented through changes in government policy, legislation, and programs.

We find collective choices explain around 50-90% of differences in environmental performance and resource use across the scenarios we model. Consistent with the institutional reform approach, we find top-down collective choices are particularly important in shaping “public good” outcomes – accounting for at least 83% of the difference between scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions.

Bottom-up individual choices play a greater role when private and public benefits are aligned. For instance individual choices account for up to half of the difference between scenarios for energy use (33–47%) and non-agricultural water consumption (16–53%).

While individual choices are important, we find decisions we make as a society are likely to shape Australia’s future sustainability more than the decisions we make as businesses and households.

Sustainable prosperity is possible, but not predestined. Australia is free to choose.

Steve will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 9:30 and 10:30am AEDT on Friday, November 6, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Chief Scientist, Integration science and public policy, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Panama: San Lorenzo Forest

The link below is to an article reporting on a study of Beetles in the San Lorenzo Forest of Panama.

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Article: Wind Farms and Birds

The link below is to an article reporting on wind farms and the alleged danger they pose to birds. A study has shown no long term damage to birds.

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