A study has suggested wind turbines are a top “predator” in certain ecosystems, owing to the harm they cause to birds and other animals.
Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the study noted that about 17 million hectares (42 million acres) is devoted to wind energy around the world. The team from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore focused specifically on Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and world-renowned biodiversity hotspot, in India. Here, turbines have been operating for about 20 years.
They found in areas where wind turbines were present, predatory raptor birds were four times rarer. This trickled down the food chain, and while it was bad news for the birds, it was good news for their favorite prey – fan-throated lizards – which had increased in population and stature.
“Increasing evidence suggests that humans are an unchecked ‘super predator’ globally, through their removal of animals and by their induction of fear,” the team wrote. “Our work shows that even without the direct presence of humans, anthropogenic disturbances such as wind farms act as effective apex predators.”
In fact, the lack of a predator left the lizards less afraid of potential dangers, with humans able to approach them up to five times closer than ones that lived further from turbines, though this meant they were less vigilant about potential attacks. These lizards near the turbines were also found to have lower levels of a stress hormone called corticosterone.
"What was remarkable to us were the subtle changes in behaviour, morphology, and physiology of those lizards," Maria Thaker, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science's Centre for Ecological Sciences and lead study author, told AFP.
The idea that wind power kills birds is not new – it’s even regularly been touted by President Trump. But the authors are keen to point out that their study doesn’t suggest we should stop using wind turbines. Rather, their placement should be not just due to economic but environmental reasons.
In 2016 it was estimated that wind turbines account for 226 million megawatt-hours of clean energy in the US alone, noted Grist, with wind power expected to increase in market value to $100 billion by 2025. As is often noted, the use of fossil fuels kills – and will kill – far more animals than wind turbines could.
Still, it is certainly worth noting the impact they are having. And based on this study, their impact on the surrounding environment should be carefully considered as we continue efforts to reduce our carbon footprint on the planet.