How Wind Farms Affect The World Beneath The Waves

4:31 minutes

Block Island Wind Farm. Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the offshore wind industry is still in its early stages in the United States, ocean-based wind farms are spreading rapidly elsewhere in the world’s seas. However, researchers are still learning what effects the massive machinery may have on the ocean ecosystems under and around them. Recent studies on one wind farm in the North Sea found that a species of mussel has found the turbine footings to be a favorable habitat, which is causing changes to the overall mix of species in the area, as well as improving water quality. Another installation became home to large numbers of crabs.

[U.S. wind power finally gets its sea legs.]

Tracey Dalton, a professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, is working on a study of the Block Island wind farm. She says that there are still many questions to be answered about exactly how offshore wind installations interact with ocean ecosystems.

Segment Guests

Tracey Dalton

Tracey Dalton is a professor of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now, it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


Because every story has a flip side.

Offshore wind energy installations are spreading worldwide, though the sea-based wind industry is still in its early days here in the United States. But when you build a cluster of huge structures off the shore, what is that doing to the ocean ecosystems? Joining me now to talk about that is Tracey Dalton. She’s Professor of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island. Welcome to the program.


IRA FLATOW: So we have now a growing population of wind installations. Do we know much about what they’re doing to the offshore ecosystems?

TRACEY DALTON: Well, we don’t really know too much. There have been a couple of studies, mostly in European waters. But we don’t know too much about what’s happening out there.

IRA FLATOW: Ah, so you’re part of a research program studying the Block Island Wind Farm site.

TRACEY DALTON: We are. So the Block–

IRA FLATOW: What kind of questions do you want to answer there?

TRACEY DALTON: So the Block Island Wind Farm is actually the first offshore wind farm in US waters so it really provides a unique opportunity to understand what’s happening out at these wind farms. I’m working with some ecologists at the Division of Marine Fisheries here in Rhode Island. And we’re trying to understand a few different things.

We’ve been analyzing some of the ecological data on fish and lobsters in around the wind turbine site. There are actually five turbines. They’re about three miles offshore. So Deepwater Wind, who is the developer, had their consultants that collected data on fish and lobsters. And so my colleagues are analyzing that data to see if there have been any changes from before the wind farm was built until now.

IRA FLATOW: Now, there are initial reports I’ve seen in the media that the good news is that there’s more sea life, like, the artificial reefs we create with the junk we throw in there.

TRACEY DALTON: Yeah. So part of our study, we’re also talking to fishermen, recreational and commercial fishermen, who have used the area before, and trying to understand if they’ve seen anything, any changes since the wind turbines were installed about a year ago. And from some of our interviews, the fishermen are saying that they’re seeing some mussels, they’re seeing some other types of fish around the area, mostly recreational fish that are common to Rhode Island waters anyways. But they have been using the area.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that report I’m talking about was actually in the North Sea, where they had a wind farm there. But I guess in the long run, these haven’t been out that long, and we don’t know what the long-term effects would be for all of these places.

TRACEY DALTON: That’s right. Yeah, we don’t really know. And so we’ve been working on these studies to try to understand that. And like I said, there have been some studies, like you’d mentioned, the one in the North Sea. That study actually looked at mussels growing on the wind turbines and tried to understand a little bit about how they’re affecting all different parts of the ecosystem, like phytoplankton.

IRA FLATOW: And the outlook for offshore wind in the US, we keep hearing about more sites being planned.

TRACEY DALTON: Yes. Right now, actually, the federal government has issued 12 commercial wind energy leases. And there are others that are also in the early stages of development. So right now, all of those 12 sites are in the early stages of planning for new development.

IRA FLATOW: That gives you an opportunity to study more sites then.

TRACEY DALTON: Yes, yes, we hope so.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s interesting. This is new technology, and we need to know what’s going on there.

TRACEY DALTON: Yes, there’s a lot of opportunity here, I think, for people to do some studies and understand what’s happening with the fish and with the birds and with the mammals.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Thank you, Dr. Dalton.

TRACEY DALTON: All right. Thank you very much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Tracey Dalton, Professor of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island.

We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’re going to be going through the ABCs of nuclear warfare, the science behind the bomb and the fallout. We talk about living in times with North Korea and the US trading accusations about nuclear weapons and things. It would be helpful to know what impact does all that have on us. We’ll talk about it after the break. Stay with us.

Copyright © 2017 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Explore More