Pile driving is a common technique used during the construction of bridges, offshore wind power, and underwater infrastructure or shoreline structures. It is the process by which a foundation, beam or pole is hammered or vibrated down into the bottom, which can generate extremely loud noise that propagates throughout the surrounding water and sediment. The noise can reach such high levels that marine animals are at risk of disturbance, injury or even death.
Sweden currently lacks established thresholds stating the level at which underwater noise potentially disturbs or injures marine animals. Hence, there are no guidance values for allowable underwater noise levels from noise-producing activities to avoid serious environmental impacts. Several countries in Europe have defined thresholds for when underwater noise can result in severe negative environmental impacts as well as standards for measuring, analysing and reporting underwater noise levels.
The purpose of this study is to review the scientific literature on underwater noise from pile driving and its effects on marine life. The study aims to define the noise levels that can cause injury and other negative effects and, on this basis, recommend noise levels that can be used to establish guidance values for regulating underwater noise for Swedish waters and species. The study presents examples of the factors that contribute to sound propagation in Swedish waters and how this influences the noise level from a pile strike as a function of distance at four study areas along the Swedish coast. Additionally, the study contains a thorough technical description of pile driving activities, basic underwater acoustics and noise effects on marine animals. These effects (injury and behavioral, e.g., flight, but not subtle effects) are demonstrated on representative species such as the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and on fish larvae and eggs. The study’s authors look at the original sources of information that other countries base their guidelines and thresholds on, so the recommendations follow scientifically determined levels rather than values that have been rounded off or otherwise altered.
The study presents sound levels in three different units, each with different biological relevance to the effects caused by a pile driving activity. None of the sound levels have been frequency weighted for a specific species, as this method is not yet fully established. The first unit used is the sound pressure level SPL(peak), which is the maximum overpressure or underpressure of the noise pulse generated by the pile strike. This unit has a high relevance for behavioural effects. The sound exposure level, SEL, is the calculated energy level over a period of time and expresses the energy of the entire sound pulse. SEL is the unit most related to hearing impairing effects. SEL(ss) is the value for a single strike while SEL(cum) is the cumulative value of a determined number of pulses over a period of time.
The review revealed that for Atlantic cod and Atlantic herring there are currently no studies that can be used to determine a species’ specific threshold value for injury, but studies show that loud noise can affect both species negatively. Because of this, the recommended noise levels for injury are based mainly on studies on other species exposed to pile driving noise in laboratory environments, supported by studies conducting large-scale experiments in tanks and oceans. The levels at which fish are at risk of death or sustaining serious injury to internal organs is SPL(peak) 207 dB re 1 μPa, SEL(ss) 174 dB re 1 μPa2s and SEL(cum) 204 dB re 1 μPa2s. Note that for injury in fish, the cumulative sound exposure level has higher relevance than the single-strike level as the cited studies found injuries after a certain time period of exposure. The thresholds for fish larvae and eggs are based on the fact that no negative effects were observed at exposures of up to SPL(peak) 217 dB re 1 μPa, SEL(ss) 187 dB re 1 μPa2s and SEL(cum) 207 dB re 1 μPa2s. However, there are relatively few studies on early life stages of fish.
There are more species-specific studies on harbour porpoises regarding noise than there are for Atlantic cod and Atlantic herring. Nonetheless, only a few can be used to determine thresholds that will lead to injury or negative behavioural effects. The levels at which there is a risk of a temporary impact on hearing, i.e. temporary threshold shift (TTS), for the harbour porpoises is SPL(peak) 194 dB re 1 μPa, SEL(ss) 164 dB re 1 μPa2s and SEL(cum) 175 dB re 1 μPa2s. When it comes to TTS, the cumulative sound exposure level, SEL(cum), is of primary importance. However, this unit is dependent on a specific time and number of pulses. For permanent threshold shift (PTS), the level is set to SPL(peak) 200 dB re 1 μPa, SEL(ss) 179 dB re 1 μPa2s and SEL(cum) 190 dB re 1 μPa2s. The recommended level should be revised as new relevant studies are conducted.