This note presents my concerns about the possible impact on migratory and breeding birds of the proposed Canso
Spaceport (Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017) in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. The above photo is a view of some of the coastal habitat to be affected by the proposed project.
These concerns arise from three years of
pre- and post-construction avian studies I conducted in that area as part of
the environment assessment of Sable Wind. These studies included research on
breeding, migration stop-over, diurnal passage, nocturnal passage, and morning
flight. An especially extensive database was collected on nocturnal passage based
on nightly acoustic recordings throughout the spring and fall migrations at 3
sites in 2013, 2015, and 2016 and on morning flight on an hourly basis in 2016.
These studies are summarized in Kearney (2017).
In particular, I wish to discuss the possible negative impacts on birds related to the effects of 1)
lighting from the project on migrating birds, 2) loss and disruption of stop-over
habitat of Whimbrels, 3) loss and disruption of breeding habit of Willets, and 4)
the effects of a rocket fuel component, hydrazine, on coastal bird populations.
The Effects of Lighting on Migratory Birds
The effects of lighting on migratory birds
falls into two separate but related categories, a) the effect of artificial
light on migrants at coastal headlands and b) the effect of artificial light on
migrants near the Sable Wind energy facility.
Effect of Artificial Light on Migrants at Coastal Headlands
Glasgow Head is the easternmost point on
the mainland of Nova Scotia. My acoustic studies indicated that it is a point
of departure in the spring and an arrival point in the autumn for birds
migrating to and from Cape Breton Island and the island of Newfoundland. In the
autumn it is also a concentration point for reorienting migrants that have been
caught in crosswinds during the night. In morning flight one can see nocturnal
migrants reorienting in a westward direction and birds in resumed migration
heading to the southwest.
The acoustic studies produced between 6,000
to 10,000 night flight calls during each of the three autumn seasons of monitoring
at Glasgow Head. This roughly represents a minimum of 3,000 to 6,000 birds per
autumn detected in the airspace up to a maximum of 150 meters immediately above
a pressure zone microphone. The microphone detects only a portion of the total
birds flying over the headland at all altitudes and beyond the lateral
boundaries of microphone detection cone. Radar studies conducted at Glasgow
Head (Lightfoot and Taylor 2013) indicated a strong correlation between acoustic and radar
detections, especially below 150 meters altitude.
It has long been known that artificial
lights attract night-migrating birds and alter their behaviour. A recent study
quantified these behavioural responses through radar and acoustic sensors (Van Doren, Horton et al. 2017). The
study indicated that illumination resulted in aggregation in high densities,
decreased flight speeds, circular flight paths, and frequent vocalization. Birds
up to 4 kilometers above the ground were influenced by the light. The authors
conclude that these behaviours may lead to significant energetic expenditures, increased
predation, collision with human structures, and changes in stop-over ecology.
If birds do not die from collision, predation, or exhaustion, their migratory
flight may be delayed in order to rebuild their fat condition.
The launch pad of the proposed spaceport is
located on the next peninsula, about 1.5 kilometers, south southwest of Glasgow
Head. Like Glasgow Head, it is currently a dark environment at night. At
Glasgow Head, the nearest lights are 1.5 kilometers away and consist of
residential lighting. The launch pad would bring lights to a coastal headland
and near a large coastal island, Andrew Island. The study by Van Doren, Horton
et al. (2017)
demonstrated that bird activity began to increase at distances 2 kilometers
from a light and peaked within 500 meters. Their models indicated that migrant
disorientation began 1.5 kilometers from an artificial light.
In 2017, I conducted nocturnal migration
monitoring at another coastal headland in Nova Scotia, Cape Forchu, in Yarmouth
County. The monitoring station was 500 meters from the nearest residential
lighting and 900 meters from a lighthouse and unshielded lamp posts in a
parking lot. Total night flight calls during the entire autumn at this location
was over 28,000 calls. This number represents 2.8 to 4.7 times the number of
calls recorded at Glasgow Head and is similar to the 3.4-fold increase in
maximum bird numbers with illumination compared to darkness as reported by Van
Doren, Horton et al. (2017).
These studies point to the potential of significant
negative impacts on the survival and health of migratory birds at the proposed
launch site due to the concentrating of birds circling lighted structures,
leading to collision, exhaustion, increased predation, and loss of migratory
Effect of Artificial Light near the Sable Wind Energy Facility
The Canso Spaceport proposal calls for a
control house located within a few hundred meters of the Sable Wind energy
facility. The same dynamics of the effect of artificial lights on migrating
birds would be at play at this location. In this case, however, disoriented
birds would be flying through an airspace populated by six wind turbines as
they approach any artificial lights. This possibility increases the risk of
collision with the turbine towers and blades.
Loss and Disruption of Whimbrel Stop-over Habitat
The rich berry crop on the barrens
surrounding the proposed spaceport are an important source of food for
Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus)
during their autumn migration. The barrens of eastern Cape Breton Island and
eastern Nova Scotia are critical stopover habitat for Whimbrels building their
body condition for a flight that many of them will take directly from Nova
Scotia over the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America (Morrison 1984).
The Atlantic Canada Conservation Data
Centre (2017) lists the conservation status of the Whimbrel as S2S3M. This
indicates that this migratory population in Nova Scotia has a status between
“imperiled” and “vulnerable”. A recent paper (Pearce-Higgins, Brown et al. 2017) on
the population status of the tribe Numeniini, of which the Whimbrel is a member,
stresses how changes in stop-over habitat are the greatest threat to these
species. The authors state: “Residential and commercial development, drilling, mining
and quarrying, and the construction of transportation and service corridors
were regarded as having widespread and severe impacts on populations,
especially in coastal non-breeding areas where they can result in significant
changes in land use.”
In 2013, in addition to the acoustic
station at Glasgow Head, an acoustic station was positioned on the shore of
Spinney Gull, a body of water between Glasgow Head and the proposed launch pad.
Total Whimbrel calls from these two stations in the autumn totaled 528, a
number representing at least one hundred Whimbrels. During the day, Whimbrels
were not seen feeding on the coastal mudflats which indicated that these
nocturnal migrants were taking off from or landing in the stopover foraging
areas in the barrens.
In 2016, acoustic point counts were carried
out for 10-minute intervals every hour for 3 hours after civil sunrise. At
Glasgow Head at least one Whimbrel was detected on 12 mornings between 2
September and 3 October for an estimate of 42 total birds. These birds were
likely flying to stop-over habitat in the adjacent barrens. At a more inland monitoring
station, Whimbrels were detected on 10 mornings between 28 August and 8 October
for a total estimated number of 22 birds. These were likely foraging Whimbrels
in the barrens immediately adjacent to the monitoring station.
The Whimbrels detected in the study area during
the 4 daily, 10-minute acoustic counts are equal to 17.6% of all the Whimbrels in Nova
Scotia reported to eBird during the same time period in 2016 (eBird 2017). This statistic indicates the critical importance of the coastal
barrens of this region as stop-over habitat for the Whimbrel.
Loss and Disruption of Willet Breeding Habitat
Willets breed in the boggy areas of the
barrens moving back and forth to the coast during the day to feed on mudflats
and in tidal pools. Their behaviour indicates that nests are located on drier,
higher ground around the edges of bogs. During the breeding studies in the
Canso area in 2013 and 2015, Willets were observed on 34% of the 32 point
counts surveyed in both years. A total of 17 birds were seen in 2013 and 14 in
2015. While there was no statistically significant difference in the number
between the two years, there was an abandonment of a small Willet colony of 3
or 4 pairs that had been located close to where two turbines were built next to
the only bog in the study area.
According the Atlantic Canada Conservation
Data Centre (2017), the conservation status of the Willet in Nova Scotia is S2S3B; “imperiled”
to “vulnerable” in the breeding season. The data from the breeding surveys in
2013 and 2015 provides evidence that Willets are sensitive to and are displaced
by construction activities and industrial noise.
The Effects of Hydrazine on Coastal Bird Populations
The missiles launched from the Canso
Spaceport will be using unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as a component
of the rocket fuel for second stage propulsion (Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017). Studies have indicated that UDMH, “especially inside the fall
region of burned-out rocket stages constitute a significant threat to both
environmental and human health, the latter as a results of the carcinogenic,
mutagenic, convulsant, teratogenic and embryotoxic characteristics of UDMH in
addition to the general toxic characteristics of the compound”(Carlsen, Kenesova et al. 2007).
The recent launch of a rocket by the
European Space Agency over the Canadian and Greenland exclusive economic zones
led to protests by the governments of Greenland, Nunavut, and the Canadian
federal government over concerns about the possible toxic effects of UDMH on
birds and marine mammals (Murray 2017). Global Affairs Canada expressed concerns to the European Space
Agency regarding “potential environmental effects of launches on the sensitive
Arctic ecosystem” (Weber 2017).
Of particular concern at the Canso Spaceport would be the accidental release of UDMH into the environment due to a spill or failed launch. UDMH persists for long periods in soil and freshwater but its effects in the marine environment have not been studied (Byers and Byers 2017).
The environmental assessment of the Canso
Spaceport needs to include a detailed analysis of the four concerns raised in
this memo to demonstrate that the project will not have significant negative
impacts on migratory and breeding birds in their aerial, terrestrial, and
aquatic habitats. If the project proceeds, it is imperative that the proponents
conduct “Controlled Before-After” studies which are designed to provide
statistically significant results in measuring the impacts on birds from the project.
All project approvals should be dependent on the development of mitigation
strategies that would be effective in reversing or greatly reducing any
significant negative impacts as determined by the controlled before-after
Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. 2017, Last
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Byers, M. and C. Byers. 2017. "Toxic splash: Russian rocket stages dropped in Arctic waters raise health, environmental and legal concerns." Polar Record 1-12. doi:10.1017/S0032247417000547.
Carlsen, L., O. A. Kenesova and S. E. Batyrbekova.
2007. "A preliminary assessment of the potential environmental and human
health impact of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine as a result of space
activities." Chemosphere 6(6): 1108-1116.
eBird. 2017. "An Online Database of
Bird Distribution and Abundance." from http://www.ebird.org.
Kearney, J. F. 2017. "Sable Wind Breeding and Migrating Birds
Post-construction Monitoring: 2015-2016". John F. Kearney and Associates
for the Municipality of the District of Guysborough and Nova Scotia Power Inc.
53 p, https://indd.adobe.com/view/7d418daf-9e62-4c57-9088-10d4b6304843.
Lightfoot, H. L. and P. D. Taylor. 2013. "Sable
Wind - Fall Radar Study Report". Acadia University 25 p.
Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017.
"Project Description, Canso, Nova Scotia Prospective Launch Site"
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waters." The Star.com, from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/10/12/ottawa-questions-europes-plan-to-drop-rocket-likely-to-contain-toxic-fuel-in-arctic-waters.html.