Access Science: Wind turbines pose a threat to the birds of Ireland

Swans, golden plovers, hen harriers and geese among species most affected by turbines

Geese: one type of bird most affected by turbines. Photograph: Johnny Greig

Geese: one type of bird most affected by turbines. Photograph: Johnny Greig

 

What do swans, golden plovers, hen harriers and geese have in common? Aside from being able to fly, they are all to be found on a list of the 22 bird species most affected by the positioning of wind turbines.

Sometimes it is a flight risk, for example with swans that often fly at a height that leaves them at risk of the whirring blades.

For others, the turbines represent a hazard to habitat, closing off space that previously would have been ideal for nesting.

It is a real challenge to find a way around this problem, says Dr Shane McGuinness, a member of the policy and advocacy team at BirdWatch Ireland. “Ireland must adhere to the Birds and Habitats Directive, which protects bird habitats but also has international obligations to fight climate change,” he says.

Ireland has already been in trouble over failing to adhere to the directive and the regulations that followed, he says.

With this in mind, he and others in BirdWatch Ireland have developed a mapping tool, Bird Sensitivity to Wind Energy Development. It takes the uncertainty out of choosing locations for turbines and identifying areas that would be particularly damaging for bird life.

“There are about 200 species here, and we assessed these, looking at their present distribution, conservation concerns and whether we had enough data on our most endangered species,” he says.

“It is important to note these 22 [species] are the most sensitive to wind-turbine development. The most at risk is the red-throated diver, a niche species found in a few isolated lakes in Co Donegal,” he says. The sandwich tern and the golden plover come second and third in the list.

“It is a pre-planning tool. It is not intended to create no-go areas in wind energy and it does not include all vulnerable species or replace the normal environmental impact assessments.”

But it does reduce uncertainty when assessing the likely impact of wind turbines on bird species, he believes. It has been well-received by companies involved in wind energy. The tool has been presented to 27 of the 31 local authorities here, he says.

Learn more about bird sensitivity mapping at birdwatchireland.ie

 

QUESTION CORNER: Does gravity’s pull balance out on the way to the moon?

  • Question: If you flew towards the moon, is there a place between it and the Earth where the pull of gravity balances out? Is it a place where space junk and debris would accumulate? Seán
  • Answer: If we are in a spacecraft going from the Earth to our moon, the Earth’s gravitational force is dragging us back to Earth, and another, weaker gravitational force tugs us towards the moon. But there is a centrifugal force, too, because the Earth and the moon rotate around a shared centre of gravity. To park the spacecraft in a spot where we would stay stationary between the Earth and the moon, all three forces would need to add up to zero. There are five such spots, and they are called Lagrange or Lagrangian points. Lagrange point 1, or L1, is at a point about 85 per cent of the way to the moon. If we stopped exactly at L1, we would never get closer to the Earth or to the moon, although in reality, any small movement in any direction means we would get pulled by gravity towards the Earth or moon and eventually end up in their orbit. That’s one reason you won’t find any space junk there. Another is that nearly all the man-made debris gets stuck in Earth’s orbit. L2 is on the far side of the moon, and L3 is on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the moon. L4 and L5 are not along a line connecting the moon and the Earth, but are out to the sides – these are stable Lagrange points, where it is possible that objects could gather, although we haven’t found anything yet. Dr David McKeown, research engineer at University College Dublin, with Claire O’Connell
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