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As the United States embarks on the construction of offshore wind farms, scientists emphasize that numerous inquiries persist regarding their potential effects on the oceans and marine ecosystems.

As renewable energy production undergoes expansion throughout the United States, the environmental ramifications of these emerging sources are gaining heightened scrutiny. In a recent report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine explored the potential effects of constructing offshore wind farms in the Nantucket Shoals region, located southeast of Massachusetts, on critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The Conversation interviewed marine scientists Erin L. Meyer-Gutbrod, Douglas Nowacek, Eileen E. Hofmann, and Josh Kohut, all of whom were part of the study committee, to elucidate the report’s key findings.

The study’s focus on this specific site stemmed from a request by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior overseeing offshore energy production. Regulators sought a comprehensive understanding of the impact of installing and operating offshore fixed-bottom wind turbine generators on physical oceanographic processes such as tides, waves, and currents, and how these changes might reverberate through the ecosystem.

The Nantucket Shoals region, a vast shallow area in the Atlantic extending south of Cape Cod, was chosen as the primary focus due to being the inaugural large-scale offshore wind farm area in the U.S., with multiple recent hydrodynamic modeling studies incorporating the region.

The heightened concern for North Atlantic right whales arises from their critical endangered status, with only an estimated 356 individuals remaining. Despite protection from whaling for nearly a century, these whales still face accidental mortality from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, contributing to the majority of documented juvenile and adult right whale deaths over the past 25 years.

Protective measures for these whales include boat speed reductions, rerouting vessels, adjusting fishing seasons, and modifying gear for whale safety. However, accurate knowledge of whale locations and timings is crucial for implementing these protections, a challenge given the vast and submerged nature of their habitat. Climate change exacerbates this challenge by altering whale feeding patterns.

As right whales increasingly spend time around the Nantucket Shoals region, it becomes imperative to ensure safe wind energy development while minimizing threats to these whales. The study delves into the potential impacts of offshore wind farms on the feeding habits and foraging habitats of right whales in the study area.

The conclusion emphasizes the need for continuous monitoring of right whales and their prey within and beyond the region, recognizing the uncertainty of how wind development might affect zooplankton, a key component of the whales’ diet. Robust data collection throughout all phases of wind farm construction and operation is essential, considering the complexity of natural and human-driven variability, including tides, seasonal changes, and long-term ocean warming due to climate change.

Despite these challenges, the development of wind energy farms in the Nantucket Shoals region presents a valuable opportunity to enhance our understanding of the hydrodynamic impacts of turbines on marine ecosystems, guiding future wind farm development along the U.S. East Coast.

What are the primary gaps in knowledge? Limited research has been conducted to comprehend the hydrodynamics around wind energy turbines, with existing studies primarily focusing on European offshore wind farms situated in the North Sea, where conditions differ from those at Nantucket Shoals. Moreover, turbines of the scale planned for the Nantucket Shoals region have not yet been constructed in U.S. waters.

Efforts to model the hydrodynamic impacts of turbines have been undertaken by researchers, but discrepancies among their findings are prevalent. There is a pressing need for further investigations to compare various model types with each other and validate them against real-world ocean observations. This ensures the accurate representation of crucial processes such as tides, stratification, turbulence, and drag.

The most precise results are likely to emerge from employing a diverse array of models. Oceanographers may initiate with models predicting water behavior around a single turbine, using these outcomes to inform models projecting the cumulative effects of an entire wind farm. Subsequently, results from wind farm-scale models would be integrated into models forecasting regional ocean circulation.

On the biological front, numerous knowledge gaps persist, including inquiries about the zooplankton species present in the Nantucket Shoals region, their origins, and the factors causing their aggregation into sufficiently dense patches for consumption by right whales. The feeding behavior of right whales in the Nantucket Shoals region remains inadequately understood, necessitating additional observations to identify the types of zooplankton targeted by right whales and the specific locations and timings of their feeding activities.

Does the report advocate for slowing offshore wind development until these queries are addressed? No, and the report did not entail recommendations for altering the pace of wind industry construction. Nantucket Shoals represents just one of several regions slated for the establishment of large-scale wind farms in U.S. waters in the ensuing decades. The committee’s counsel to federal regulators and other pertinent entities is to undertake observational and modeling research comprehensively. This research aims to enhance understanding of hydrodynamic and ecological processes before, during, and after wind farm construction, proving crucial for addressing and mitigating environmental impacts stemming from offshore wind farm development. Richard Merrick, former chief science adviser and director of scientific programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, and Kelly Oskvig, director of the study at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, contributed to this article.

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