Vibrational noise from wind energy-turbines negatively impacts earthworm abundance

Wiley Online|Estefania Velilla, Eleanor Collinson, Laura Bellato, Matty P. Berg and Wouter Halfwerk|May 7, 2021
NetherlandsImpact on Wildlife

This important study examines how vibrations produced by operating wind turbines have resulted in the dramatic decrease in earthworm abundance which could have harmful impacts on healthy soil function in agriculture. The abstract and discussion from the paper are provided below. The full paper can be accessed at the document links on this page.


Human activities often impact the sensory environment of organisms. Wind energy turbines are a fast-growing potential source of anthropogenic vibrational noise that can affect soil animals sensitive to vibrations and thereby alter soil community functioning. Larger soil animals, such as earthworms (macrofauna, > 1 cm in size), are particularly likely to be impacted by the low-frequency turbine waves that can travel through soils over large distances. Here we examine the effect of wind turbine-induced vibrational noise on the abundance of soil animals. We measured vibrational noise generated by seven different turbines located in organically-farmed crop fields in the Netherlands. Vibratory noise levels dropped by an average of 23 ± 7 dB over a distance of 200 m away from the wind turbines. Earthworm abundance showed a strong decrease with increasing vibratory noise. When comparing the nearest sampling points in proximity of the wind energy turbines with the points furthest away, abundance dropped on average by 40% across all seven fields. The abundance of small-sized soil animals (mesofauna, < 10 mm in size) differed between crop fields, but was not related to local noise levels. Our results suggest that anthropogenic vibratory noise levels can impact larger soil fauna, which has important consequences for soil functioning. Earthworms, for instance, are considered to be crucial ecosystem engineers and an impact on their abundance, survival and reproduction may have knock-on effects on important processes such as water filtration, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration.

We assessed the relationship between subterranean vibrational noise levels induced by wind turbines and the abundance of mesofauna. Sampling seven different agricultural fields, we found that vibrational noise levels were significantly higher closer to the wind turbines and that earthworm abundance was negatively related to vibrational noise levels. We found no relationship between noise levels and smaller-sized soil animals.
Earthworm abundance was negatively related to vibrational noise
We found that, on average, the number of earthworms decreased by 40% at the point furthest away from the turbines compared to the closest point to the turbines where we measured (128 m versus 8 m). Our results confirm that earthworm abundance decreased substantially as the amplitude of vibrational noise increased. The maximum amplitude difference over the range at which we surveyed earthworms was on average 13 dB. We therefore predict the impact of vibratory noise to be even bigger when measured over the whole transect, as vibrational noise levels near the base of the turbine are up to 30 dB higher than at our furthest sites (> 200 m from the turbine). We did not survey earthworm densities close to the turbine base as the composition of the soil differed substantially between the nearest points (2 m and 4 m) and remaining points of the transect. While we accounted for variation in soil compaction and crop type, neither of these factors was related to earthworm densities. Soil compaction and crop type also did not co-vary with distance to the wind turbines (Supporting information). Although vibration-specific receptors have not been described for any earthworm species, earthworms can detect tactile stimuli along their entire body (Laverack 1960), and tactile stimulation has been shown to induce activity in the segmental nerves (Laverack 1960, Mill and Knapp 1967). Earthworms also have distinct sensory cell bumps found along their body surface that contain multiciliate sensory cells (Langdon 1895, Knapp and Mill 1971, Gardner 1976, Mill 1982). A combination of sensory cell bumps and tactile sensitivity in earthworms, makes them a good candidate for vibration reception (Mitra 2009).


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