Study recommends excluding and moving offshore wind farms away from protected areas in the Mediterranean


The study presents a first assessment of the potential environmental impacts of wind farms in the Mediterranean. Credit: University of Barcelona

A scientific team in marine sciences and geography from the University of Barcelona, ​​the University of Girona (UdG), the Center for Advanced Studies in Blanes (CEAB-CSIC) and the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC ) recommends the exclusion and relocation to offshore wind farms of protected areas in the Mediterranean due to the serious negative impacts that these facilities can have on marine biodiversity and the landscape. This is one of the key findings of the team’s paper, published in the journal Total Environmental Sciencewhich includes the participation of the lecturer Jordi Solé, from the Department of Earth and Ocean Dynamics of the Faculty of Earth Sciences of the UB.

The study presents a first assessment of the potential environmental impacts of wind farms in the Mediterranean, and in particular in areas of great ecological fragility and high landscape value. As a case study, it analyzes the large-scale offshore wind farm of Cap de Creus and the Gulf of Roses, where eight marine protected areas are located. The team reviewed nearly 150 articles from around the world. This diagnosis aims to be useful in other Mediterranean areas and other seas and oceans of the world characterized by great diversity, the existence of marine protected areas, a valuable landscape and important fishing and tourist activities in the local scale.

In particular, the study fully analyzes for the first time the different impacts that these systems can have on the water column: from plankton to the seabed; fish and shellfish essential for fishing delicate and protected species, such as whales, dolphins, turtles and certain seabirds.

The article points out that large-scale offshore wind farms can lead to “serious environmental risks for the seabed and the biodiversity of many areas of the Mediterranean due to the specific ecological, socio-economic characteristics and vulnerability of this semi- -closed”. Therefore, “models like those in the North Seas cannot be imported directly”, where there are many offshore wind farms. For the team, the Mediterranean is known for its “narrower but more heterogeneous shelf and a higher proportion of threatened species and habitats than the seas of northern Europe”.

Wind farms, complex structures

Wind turbine structures are complex. Underwater, floating wind farms – those that would be installed in the Mediterranean – require huge mooring and anchoring systems that can affect the integrity of the seabed. Marine mammals can collide or become entangled in cables. In addition, the noise caused by wind farms accumulates with other noises from human activities, such as sailing, and has a negative impact on the behavior of marine mammals. In addition, these floating platforms also attract invasive species or opportunistic species that can alter the fragile balance of biodiversity. Researchers are all the more concerned about this phenomenon because the arrival of alien species affects the Mediterranean more than any other European sea.

In addition, floating wind turbines, which are over 250 meters high, can alter the dynamics of local atmospheric and ocean currents. This situation can affect plankton production in a generally nutrient-poor sea.

The study also defends the need to maintain marine biodiversity to combat climate change and mitigate its effects. According to the authors of the article, marine habitats have a great potential for storing carbon and are a solution to this problem, which lies in nature itself. For scientists, the ecosystems richest in biodiversity are the most resistant to the impacts of climate change.

Protected areas in Cap de Creus

The ecological impacts of marine wind farms would be “particularly severe in areas with high biodiversity and fragility such as Cap de Creus and the Gulf of Roses”, warn the authors. There are eight convergent protected areas at this stage, which are nationally and internationally recognized. According to international agreements, at least 30% of the seas and oceans must be protected by 2030. The researchers note that currently this figure in Spain currently stands at 12%.

The document warns of the risks of incidents associated with extreme weather events, which will become more frequent due to climate change. He also warns of the problems inherent in wind turbines, such as the breaking of the structure in the sea and collisions with ships. The scientific team stresses that these projects involve the industrialization of the coastline in areas of high landscape value. On the one hand, we should increase the capacity of the nearest ports to set up the logistics related to the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms. On the other hand, the ports would house the infrastructures that produce energy from hydrogen, which may involve specific environmental risks related to the uses of water and soil, the discharge of brine or hydrogen fruits, among others.

Finally, the study indicates that the impacts will not only be noticeable on the coast, but will reach inland and coastal cities. These cities will have to house infrastructure (access roads, substations, transmission lines or temporary structures) that can damage fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, for example.

Fishing and tourism

The document notes that the exclusion of fishing activity – including artisanal fishing – from areas affected by offshore wind farms can have economic, social and environmental consequences for fishers, the fishing industry, communities coastal communities that depend on this sector, and society in general. In addition, sounds, vibrations and electromagnetic fields from cables can resonate on catches.

The authors argue that the debate on the potential impacts of offshore wind farms on the landscape will become more intense in the Mediterranean than in northern countries, and that it focuses on the relevance of coastal and maritime tourism of this sea. For example, the The projected wind farm at Cap de Creus would be built between eight and thirty kilometers from the coast, while in 2019 the average distance of all offshore wind farms in Europe was almost 60 kilometers from the coast. On the economic level, a study carried out on the Catalan coast calculated a shortfall of 203 million euros per tourist season.

More recommendations to protect the environment

The study ends with a series of recommendations to policy makers to “streamline the race for offshore wind farm proposals in the Mediterranean by energy companies”. According to the scientists, they should first apply the precautionary principle “to guarantee the highest level of environmental protection through preventive decision-making in the event of obvious environmental risks, such as the case of the Costa Brava”.

The document also mentions mandatory compliance with EU blue economy mandates. The authors support an ecosystem approach, i.e. not only considering the diversity of species and habitats, but also the ecological functions in different areas – feeding grounds, foraging areas, migration corridors, etc. – as well as the associated ecosystem goods and services.

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More information:
Josep Lloret et al, Unraveling the ecological impacts of large-scale offshore wind farms in the Mediterranean Sea, Total Environmental Science (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.153803

Provided by the University of Barcelona

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