New study in natural gas fields of northern New Mexico: First in any animal to link oil & gas industry noise pollution to stress and show the connection can disrupt reproduction

Two new studies, one in Alberta Canada, one in New Mexico USA:

Songbirds on Alberta oilfields are changing their tunes to cope with the noise, Sparrows sing at higher frequencies to be heard over compressors, pumpjacks and screw pumps by The Canadian Press, January 26, 2018, Edmonton Journal

Noisy oilpatch equipment is causing songbirds to change their tune, concludes research from the University of Manitoba.

“It’s something that is really picking up, the idea of noise pollution,” said Miya Warrington, a co-author of a new paper in Condor, the journal of the American Ornithological Society. “We want to see what is that doing for the birds.”

Warrington looked at savannah sparrows, a small, common, thick-beaked sparrow with a splash of yellow over the eye. Its complex song has up to nine different “syllables” that convey a lot of information.

Some parts of the song deliver a territorial warning. Others advertise for mates. Others just say, “I am here.” All are crucial messages for the sparrow’s survival. Each bird has an individual version of the song, which includes elements from a high-pitched trill to an insect-like buzz.

These days, however, sparrows share the prairies with a lot of noisy machinery. Oil and gas infrastructure is common on the plains and Warrington wanted to see how birdsong competes with it.

“You can hear birds clearly when it’s quieter,” she said. “When you’re closer to the infrastructure, you don’t hear the birds as clearly.

“You start to think, if I can’t hear, maybe the birds can’t hear.”

She looked at 26 sites around Brooks in southern Alberta. The sites contained four types of energy infrastructure: natural gas compressors, pumpjacks, screw pumps powered by the electrical grid and screw pumps powered by generators.

She recorded and analyzed the songs of 73 male sparrows between the months of May and July and compared them with the songs of sparrows where there were no oilpatch facilities.

The analysis showed that all pumps and compressors made sounds on the same frequencies as at least part of the sparrow’s song. Recordings revealed the birds were adjusting parts of their songs, depending on the source of the background noise.

“All syllable types were significantly affected by at least one infrastructure type,” the paper says.

In some cases, sparrows sang the entire song at higher frequencies, as if they’d transposed it to a higher key.

Of the four types of infrastructure, generator-powered screw pumps had the most impact while natural gas compressors had the least.

Warrington suggests the birds made changes in efforts to be heard over the sound of the equipment.

“The birds are modifying their birdsong in response to the noise that’s created by this oil and natural gas infrastructure.”

Avian response to human noise is a hot topic in the bird research world.

Another paper in the same issue of Condor looks at how grouse adjust their mating calls in the presence of sound from wind turbines. Urban birds have also been shown to raise the pitch of their songs in noisy city environments.

The issue is particularly pressing for grassland birds such as sparrows. While almost all songbirds are in decline, grassland species are declining the quickest.

“They’ve actually been looking at a whole lot of grassland species and finding that, in some species, the presence of oil infrastructure is affecting reproduction while in others it’s not.”

Nobody yet knows if the sparrows’ new songs are conveying the same old messages.

“Is it changing how those who are listening can respond? Are these modifications helping them get their message across?” Warrington asks.

“We want to see what is that doing for the birds.” [Emphasis added]

The study

A new study is the first in any animal to link noise pollution to stress and show that this connection can disrupt reproduction by Jason Bittel, January 8, 2018, National Geographic

However, a boom in oil and gas activity has transformed the soundscape of this region. Now, depending on how close you are to a well pad or a compressor engine, the desert can resemble the din of a busy office. Or worse.

“Some of the loudest sites can be associated with standing on the tarmac at an airport,” says Clinton Francis, an ecologist at California Polytechnic State University. (Listen to what a compressor station sounds like.)

Francis and his colleagues have been studying what effect such noises has on desert wildlife for years, and they say the newest results—published January 8 in the journal PNASare worrisome.

In short, western bluebirds that nest in proximity to oil and gas noises hatch fewer chicks than bluebirds that nest in quiet. This is particularly concerning, because western bluebirds are considered hardy species not particularly sensitive to noise, says Francis, who received funding from the National Geographic Society.

Not only that, but chicks growing up among the industrial cacophony are smaller than those born in more quiet areas, he says.

“A Really Thick Fog”

The scientists were able to come by their findings by placing a network of 240 nest boxes throughout the desert, each at varying distances to oil and gas wells.

The boxes provided the scientists with a way to routinely monitor the birds to check for nest condition and the presence of eggs and chicks. Trap doors on the boxes gave the team a minimally invasive method with which to capture the birds and take measurements, and small blood draws provided insight into how the birds were responding to their environment.

While other studies have looked at how noise can affect stress hormones or fitness in a host of animals, Francis says theirs is the first to combine all of these factors to really pinpoint how noise impacts reproduction.

How or why it does so is less clear, however.

A study Francis published last year found that desert areas with the most human-caused noise had fewer crickets, froghoppers, grasshoppers, and velvet ants—suggesting birds that nest in such areas may simply have less food. It’s possible the birds simply don’t realize that the sounds are bad for them—a concept called an “ecological trap.”

Noise could also be interfering with communication between adult bluebirds, or drowning out the birdsong that alerts other animals in the community about predators.

It might be difficult for us to comprehend just how much of a burden noise can be to animals, notes Francis, because humans are primarily visual creatures. But thinking of hearing like vision might help. (Read: “High Levels of Dangerous Chemicals Found in Air Near Oil and Gas Sites.”)

“It’s like navigating through a really thick fog,” he says. “Imagine you’re trying to traverse across some landscape and all you can see is 10 or 15 meters in front of you, where under normal conditions your sightline could be miles.”

Stress Signals

Francis and colleagues also found that stress hormone levels go down in western bluebirds, mountain bluebirds, and ash-throated flycatchers that experience chronic noise.

This is surprising, because it’s thought that higher levels of these hormones, also known as glucocorticoids, are the best indicator of stress. In this case, it seems that the birds’ bodies have had to tamp down that response in order to survive. (Read how U.S. air pollution once turned birds black.)

“That’s a really interesting finding and it’s kind of one of the newer ideas to come out of the last decade about how stress hormones work,” says Sue Anne Zollinger, a behavioral physiologist at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

Overall, Zollinger says, there’s a lot of variability among species and how they respond to human sounds. For instance, adult zebra finches she exposes to noise pollution in her lab don’t seem to mind, but juveniles are heavily affected. For instance, these affected chicks were smaller and aged faster than those not exposed to noise.

What’s more, Chris McClure, an ornithologist and director of global conservation science for the Peregrine Fund, says the study refutes the notion that birds will get used to noise.

“In other words, we can’t assume that just because birds aren’t avoiding noise, that they aren’t paying a cost for staying put,” says McClure. [Emphasis added]


Compare to human effects of unconventional oil and gas industry noise:

Noise pollution from oil and gas development may harm human health by Ann Brody Guy, December 20, 2016, PSE Healthy Energy

Noise pollution from oil and gas development may harm human health
Modern oil and gas development techniques such as directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” produce noise at levels that may increase the risk of adverse effects on human health, including sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease and other conditions that are negatively impacted by stress, according to a new study, by researchers at the nonprofit science and policy research institute PSE Healthy Energy and West Virginia University. It is the first peer-reviewed study to analyze the potential public health impacts of ambient noise related to fracking operations.

“People living near oil and gas development may bring up concerns like air pollution, traffic and groundwater safety, but many also complain about noise,” said Jake Hays, director of the Environmental Health Program at PSE Healthy Energy, and lead author of the paper, which was published December 9 in Science of the Total Environment. “But until now, most of the research relevant to public health has focused on the impacts of air and water pollution,” Hays said.

Fracking technologies have unlocked oil and gas deposits from formations like shale and tight sands that previously were not considered economically viable. But the environmental and public health effects of such operations are still emerging. To understand whether noise from fracking might impact the health of surrounding communities, PSE Healthy Energy researchers gathered all available data and measurements of noise levels at oil and gas operations and compared the information to established health-based standards from the World Health Organization and other groups.

They found that noise from fracking operations may contribute to adverse health outcomes in three categories:

Annoyance: Sustained noise may produce a host of negative responses such as feelings of anger, anxiety, helplessness, distraction, and exhaustion, and may predict future psychological distress.

Sleep Disturbance: Awakening and changes in sleep state have after-effects that include drowsiness, cognitive impairment and long-term chronic sleep disturbance.

Cardiovascular Health: Studies have found positive correlations between chronic noise exposure and elevated blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease.

Environmental noise is a well-documented public health hazard. Numerous large-scale epidemiological studies have linked noise to adverse health outcomes including diabetes, depression, birth complications and cognitive impairment in children. Noise exposure, like other health threats, may disproportionately impact vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.

“Oil and gas operations produce a complex symphony of noise types, including intermittent and continuous sounds and varying intensities.”
-Seth Shonkoff

High-decibel sounds are not the only culprits; low-level sustained noises can disturb sleep and concentration and cause stress.

“Oil and gas operations produce a complex symphony of noise types, including intermittent and continuous sounds and varying intensities,” said PSE Healthy Energy Executive Director Seth Shonkoff, who is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and an affiliate of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For example, compressor stations produce a low rumble; drilling a horizontal well is a loud process that can take four to five weeks 24 hours per day to complete; and using large volumes of water at high pressure results in pump- and fluid-handling noise.

Compound or synergistic effects also may be at play, Shonkoff said. For example, noise reduction technology may lower negative impacts, and synergistic effects of noise and air pollution may create a new health threat or amplify an existing one.

Researchers note that data collection methodologies varied across public and private entities and types of drilling operations, requiring some estimates in the data. They say additional research is needed to determine the level of risk to communities living near oil and gas operations.

However, initial evidence suggests that policies and mitigation techniques are warranted to limit human exposure to unsafe noise levels from fracking. Policies can specify setbacks from residents and communities — in particular vulnerable populations such as schools and hospitals — noise mitigation techniques such as perimeter sound walls, and location siting decisions that make use of natural noise barriers like hills and trees.

Michael McCawley, the interim chair of the Occupational and Environmental Health Department at West Virginia University, was also a coauthor on the study, titled “Public health implications of environmental noise associated with unconventional oil and gas development.”

# # #

Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy is a non-profit energy-science and policy-research institute dedicated to supplying evidence-based, scientific, and technical information and resources on the public health, environmental and climate dimensions of energy production and use. PSE’s work focuses on unconventional oil and gas development, renewable energy, and energy storage.


Encana has been violating Ernst’s legal right to quiet enjoyment of her home and land since 2003, with the AER deregulating to match Encana’s non-compliances, and lying to and bullying Ernst trying to silence her requests for energy regulation, including judging her a criminal without any evidence or trial (which Justice Rosalie Abella lied about in her Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Ernst vs AER, saying the regulator found Ernst to be a vexatious litigant two years before Ernst filed her lawsuit), and violating her Charter rights.

And then there’s the air pollution, this by Encana:

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