The Ecological Consequences of Offshore Wind research programme (ECOWind) has confirmed funding for three pioneering projects. Together, these projects will investigate the cumulative impacts of offshore wind on the marine environment, and will use their findings to inform marine policy and management.
In response to concerns over climate change and energy security, the UK Government has made ambitious targets for offshore renewable energy. To meet its goal of 50 GW of offshore wind power by 2050, the UK's marine landscape will need to change considerably - which could impact the marine environment, alongside other marine users including the fishing industry. However, the cumulative effects of building offshore wind farms at such a scale, coupled with the consequences of other human activities on marine life, are not well understood, particularly when also considering the future effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the sea.
Overall funding for the programme totals around £7.5 million, provided by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and The Crown Estate, with support from Defra. The ECOWind programme aims to address gaps in knowledge and provide policy-ready research outcomes that ensure offshore wind can be expanded in line with biodiversity priorities. Three new projects will form the core of the programme, working closely with policymakers, industry bodies, and each other to ensure their outputs are useful and relevant.
Mandy King, Programme Manager of The Crown Estate's Offshore Wind Energy and Change Programme, who are co-funding ECOWind, commented://"We want to help develop an industry that supports the UK's net zero ambitions and ensures we are positively impacting communities around our coastline and further offshore, including humans and marine life. The Crown Estate is proud to be co-investing in these research projects, which will provide excellent data and evidence to benefit our precious ecosystems and help us better understand the long-term impacts of offshore wind. This cutting-edge research is incredibly important in enabling the responsible development of future wind capacity that respects the needs of all those that depend on a healthy, sustainable marine environment."
The ECOWind-ACCELERATE project, led by Bangor University, will investigate how offshore wind affects the seabed through altering water flow conditions, and what this means for the wider marine ecosystem. When a wind turbine is installed, it changes the way ocean currents flow, which also changes the seabed, resulting in knock-on impacts up the food chain. Using the Eastern Irish Sea as a case study, and in the context of accelerating climate change, the project will help build more accurate environmental prediction systems, including anticipated behaviour changes in animals such as seabirds resulting from impacts to the seabed. It will also build a public-facing tool to help people understand if their data is fit for purpose when assessing risks and opportunities arising from changes to the seabed after windfarm expansion.
"We will predict the way animals will use the changing seabed as windfarms expand and the climate changes," said ECOWind-ACCELERATE Principal Investigator Dr Katrien Van Landeghem, of Bangor University. "Some animals might be affected negatively, some positively. With the largest water flow laboratories, the best offshore surveying facilities and the newest numerical models, we will test, model, observe and compare seabed environmental changes whilst tracking the seabirds who dive to the seabed for their food. We will diagnose risks, but also help provide solutions by identifying opportunities for net gain for the marine ecosystem."
The ECOWINGS project, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, will focus on the cumulative impacts of offshore wind on key seabird species in the UK North Sea, such as kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins. It will investigate exactly what causes seabirds to change their behaviour when offshore windfarms are built - for instance, if they avoid windfarms due to aversion of the turbines themselves, because their prey species have moved elsewhere, or both. The project will use these findings to build a set of tools to inform strategic compensation, a type of policy measure that aims to offset any negative impacts on wildlife through supporting their populations via other means, such as habitat protection or creation.
"Seabirds are the top consenting issue for offshore wind in the UK sector of the North Sea because of the potential negative effects on their populations, and they are also experiencing the consequences of rapid climate change," said ECOWINGS Principal Investigator Dr Francis Daunt, of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. "Accordingly, our project will deliver new evidence and tools for accurately estimating these impacts, and will develop effective compensatory measures that deliver net gain to seabirds and the North Sea ecosystem that incorporate future projections of climate change."
The PELAgIO project will look at the effects of offshore wind on a wide range of interacting marine factors. Everything that happens in the ocean is interlinked, but these connections are not always immediately obvious. The project will begin by examining effects on ocean currents, seeing how they affect nutrients and plankton populations, before scaling up to investigate effects on plankton-eating fish such as sandeels and herring, followed by the animals that eat these fish, such as seabirds and seals. Its findings will help build tools to assess policy trade-offs at the ecosystem level and create a better understanding of the many interactions taking place in the ocean, and how they change when offshore wind and climate change are introduced.
"We will blend state-of-the-art platforms, ocean robots and satellite observations with cutting edge numerical modelling to design new low-carbon methods to provide the data and evidence needed to understand how plankton, fish and seabirds are interacting with these man-made additions to our oceans," said PELAgIO Principal Investigator Professor Beth Scott, of the University of Aberdeen. "Preliminary studies indicate that windfarms may influence the food production at the base of the marine food chain and our range of real data collection and modelling approaches will take this new understanding from physics, to fish, to ecosystems to help ensure we make the most efficient use of our marine spaces."
The three projects will move at pace, beginning by meeting with relevant stakeholders, forming partnerships with the offshore wind industry to aid their research efforts, and producing policy-conscious research plans for the next four years. They will work closely together to share research techniques and equipment, and ultimately their outputs will be brought together to produce a suite of resources for decision-makers.
If you would like to learn more about the programme or find out how to get involved, get in touch at email@example.com. You can find out more about ECOWind and the three projects on the ECOWind website: www.ecowind.uk
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