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September 26, 2022

A new USGS report shows a link between air disturbed by wind turbines and vegetation patterns

Denver, CO. — The trails of disturbed air produced by wind turbines—known as wakes—can alter downwind temperatures and humidity, and a new U.S. Geological Survey study has demonstrated for the first time that wakes can impact vegetation in the vicinity.

The study’s insight into the effects of wakes from wind turbines on vegetation is an important first step to understanding how wind energy affects terrestrial ecosystems. Wind energy is rapidly and globally expanding, with five-fold increases since 2010 and predictions of up to 10-fold growth over the next 30 years.  

“We are just beginning to understand how the wakes from wind turbines affect both the terrestrial and offshore environment,” said USGS Research Ecologist, Jay Diffendorfer, “The next step will be to better understand where and why these effects occur.”

In the study, scientists modeled wake and non-wake zones around 17 wind facilities across the United States, to test if wakes influenced vegetation condition, which was measured using data from USGS’s Landsat satellites. The study was designed to isolate the effects of turbine wakes from other factors that could affect vegetation condition around wind facilities, such as new roads or agriculture. 

These wake-induced changes in vegetation condition were found for part or all of the growing season at 10 of the 17 facilities studied. Researchers found that wakes can have both positive and negative effects on vegetation greenness, a measure that is often used in remote sensing to assess vegetation density and crop health, and that the magnitude of the change in greenness depended primarily on earlier precipitation. The changes observed at some facilities were consistent with levels that other studies found can affect breeding bird clutch size, species richness, and ungulate abundance.

As wind energy expands, understanding where and when wind turbines positively or negatively affect vegetation may aid in future decisions about where to site wind energy infrastructure. For example, careful placement may benefit agriculture or grazing while minimizing unwanted reductions to the vegetation greenness in the vicinity. 

The full publication, “Wind turbine wakes can impact down-wind vegetation greenness,” is available in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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