Wind Farms Potentially Beneficial and Harmful to Offshore Ecosystems

wind farms

Turbines used for wind power have long drawn opposition from those who study wildlife. Many birds and other types of animals have been killed by the large blades of the wind harnessing energy farming equipment. However new studies now show that wind farms off the coast can be beneficial to wildlife. While the blades can still be harmful to birds and the noise of the machines may still drive away certain mammals the structures have also been shown to act as artificial reefs. Barnacles and crustaceans as well as the types of fish that are typically found with them end up using the submerged sections of the structures which then attracts larger animals like seals.

The synthetic reef attracts fish that seals like to eat and thus the wind farms become a popular hunting ground for the aquatic mammals. Some seals with GPS tags have been seen returning to the structures and hunting with a grid like pattern, indicating that the predators know they will tend to find an abundance of prey in the half man-made reef. The seals come to the area and then search each section of the wind farm looking for the one with the most abundant prey.

While this is good news for the mammalian hunters it could be very bad news for their food. The almost guaranteed hunting success of the seals may mean that the fish and crustaceans lower on the food chain are being attracted to a trap that could upset the balance of the natural order, tilting it temporarily in the seal’s favor. Any such gains for the seals are likely to prove temporary, because the seals’ success will lead to their food sources dwindling, meaning their new semi-artificial hunting ground was not for the best after all.

Similar study results and arguments have been seen in the past regarding oil drilling platforms that eventually became similar artificial reefs. Critics argue that any large solid structure will eventually be used by wildlife as an artificial reef, but this does not necessarily mean the ecosystem was not tampered with. Wildlife will adapt to conditions modified by humans, but the adaptations are not always enough to permanently secure the ecosystem once again. Decommissioned military vehicles as well as large amounts of tires have been placed offshore in the past to create artificial reefs much like the ones made by the wind farms. Still there are opponents to this technique, and legal battles over the removal of old oil rigs are still being decided.

Scientists, corporations, and governments must decide if the negative effects of offshore wind farms are outweighed by the benefits. The turbines are a very viable source of alternative energy that the world desperately needs, and the structures benefit certain marine creatures. However the very same marine creatures could be adversely affected in the long run, as well as the hundreds of birds and bats that are killed by the turbine blades each year. With data on both the benefits and harmful effects of the wind farms progress is almost certain to be made in safely utilizing this growing form of alternative energy.

By Matt Isaacs

The Independent 
Current Biology
National Academy Press 

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