We came across the following post on the social communication app Telegram on a channel called ‘The Expose News’, which has over 34,000 subscribers:
The post claims to show ‘hard evidence that the wind turbine industry is harming whales’, and contains a link to a web article on the news site The Expose that details the supposed evidence. We have previously debunked false claims from The Expose that targeted renewable energy.
The article focused on deaths of humpback whales and critically endangered North Atlantic right whales on the eastern coast of the US.
According to The Expose, there has been a spike in humpback whale deaths from an average of eight deaths per year prior to 2016, when increased activity from wind turbine construction began, to an average of 25 deaths a year since 2016. Last year, the article said, a record 83 whales were found dead.
The Expose suggests there is a strong correlation between the whale deaths and the offshore sonar surveys and piledriving in the wind industry.
What is Killing the Whales?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US federal agency that oversees the recovery of endangered species, has recorded unusually elevated humpback mortalities since 2016, designated as an Unusual Mortality Event. As of 30 November 2023, 212 humpback whale mortalities, including numerous strandings, had been recorded along the Atlantic coast since 2016.
The North Atlantic right whale has also been experiencing an Unusual Mortality Event since 2017, which is concerning for the prospects of survival for the species as it is estimated to have approximately only 360 individuals remaining.
In the case of the humpback whales, necropsy examinations were possible on about half of the dead whales, which uncovered that about 40% of these whales had evidence of human interaction, such as through being struck by vessels or being entangled in fishing gear. The rest of the whale deaths could not be linked to any specific cause. Most of the documented right whale deaths were also from entanglements or vessel strikes.
Vessel strikes have emerged as the most consistent cause of death. These are likely a result of whales following their prey into new habitats, as well as the influence of climate change in warming oceans, making the busy waters along the US east coast more attractive.
Concurrently, ports along the east coast have become busier, especially since the boom in online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to the seas in the area becoming more dangerous for marine mammals.
In contrast, there are no causal links between the wind farms and the whale deaths. In Europe, where offshore wind has been developed for over three decades, such causal links have not been found either.
How Can Offshore Wind Farms Affect Whales?
The construction and operation of wind turbines on wind farms contributes to the underwater noise that can disorient whales. However, underwater noise emanates from many sources, including military testing, oil and gas exploration and ocean vessels.
As suggested in the claim, one possible source of disturbance for whales from the wind industry is the sonar surveys used to map the seafloor prior to the construction of wind farms. Sonar is recognised to have the ability to cause behavioural disruption and short-term hearing loss in whales.
However, the sonar equipment used by the wind industry emits a smaller amount of acoustic energy in a smaller area that the seismic guns used in the oil and gas industry or military sonar, and they are also used for shorter periods of time. This is assessed to result in less severe impacts on the whales.
Pile driving to install turbines also introduces underwater noise. However, along with the conducting of sonar surveys, these activities are regulated by the NOAA to minimise harm to marine mammals. The NOAA does not authorise activities that are anticipated to seriously injure or the kill marine mammals.
Surveys cannot be conducted if marine mammals are within a certain distance from the surveying vessel. Pile driving projects often require mitigations, such as sound attenuating systems, clearance zones and seasonal restrictions when marine mammals are expected to be present.
The operation of wind turbines on wind farms also produces low frequency noise underwater, with large wind farms producing noise comparable to that of a large cargo ship. However, offshore wind operations create much less sound pressure than pile driving or surveying.
Apart from noise, another way offshore wind farms can affect marine mammals is by altering waves, tides and currents in ways that affect where their prey is located. While research is currently ongoing in this field, it is currently not possible to isolate these effects from other sources of variability such as climate change and seasonal changes in water temperature.
Regardless of these effects, NOAA reiterates that no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activity, and that there is no evidence linking whale stranding events to offshore wind. This assessment is supported by other independent organisations and experts.
False Claims from the Depths
The prevalence of the claims attributing whale deaths to the wind industry are likely to be a result of politically driven dis/misinformation. These claims had been observed in the US rightwing media, such as on news segments on Fox News, early in 2023. As these claims garnered traction, they spread on social media and through more influential voices.
For example, the former US president Donald Trump claimed in a campaign rally in September 2023 that wind turbines were ‘causing whales to die in numbers never seen before’. The conspiracy theory also made its way across the sea to Australia.
Conservative politicians and organisations in both countries have begun arguing against wind energy as a result of these claims. The widespread nature of these claims in political discourse, despite the lack of evidence, appears to have contributed to its persistence.
Obfuscation and Ignorance
The claims of harm caused by wind farms are grossly exaggerated by the article, which also misrepresent the attributed causes of many of the whale deaths.
Moreover, there is no acknowledgement in the article that the detrimental effects attributed to offshore wind farms are also present in the oil and gas and shipping industries. The influence of climate change on the oceans is also ignored.
In conclusion, we find that while wind farms have the ability to disturb whales, there is no evidence that any deaths or stranding events are linked to offshore wind activity as suggested in the article. The assertion that the whale deaths are related to offshore wind farms is therefore false.