Thousands of US growler jets fly south of Victoria each year. Can wildlife handle the noise?

Scientists are looking into how the rumbling in the sky may be affecting the species on land and under the water


Thousands of US growler jets fly south of Victoria each year. Can wildlife handle the noise?

Scientists are looking into how the rumbling in the sky may be affecting the species on land and under the water

Photo: US Navy
Photo: US Navy

Thousands of US growler jets fly south of Victoria each year. Can wildlife handle the noise?

Scientists are looking into how the rumbling in the sky may be affecting the species on land and under the water

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Thousands of US growler jets fly south of Victoria each year. Can wildlife handle the noise?

From an east-facing house at the border between Oak Bay and Victoria, the sound is almost tangible: a low, earthquake-like rumble inside the body registering somewhere between an upset stomach and a rap show one house over.

The sound is coming from much farther away, however, all the way across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Whidbey Island, WA. More precisely, the sound is coming from over the island and the waters surrounding it: EA-18G “Growlers,” warplanes employed by the US Navy for their capability of jamming enemy electronics, and ability to take off from the necessarily short runway of an aircraft carrier deck.

With the sound pulsing over the strait, it’s not hard to imagine where the name comes from.

“When the Big One finally does start shaking Victoria #yyj, I might accidentally dismiss it as US Navy Growler jets taking off on Whidbey Island,” radio host Gregor Craigie tweeted in December 2020.

A Navy spokesperson told Capital Daily this month that the base has previously received some complaints from Victoria-area residents, “generally referencing a low rumble they hear in the distance.”

“The base was unable to pin down specific operations that were occurring during those events,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

For the people living under the shadow of the base that employs the growlers, the sound is much more pressing than a distant mystery. In the San Juan Islands, a website that was launched to collect jet noise complaints has collected an ever-growing number of entries which have never dropped below 2,000 per year.

“We’re talking hundreds of takeoffs and landings a day,” says Roger Marzulla, a lawyer who has brought a class action lawsuit against the US Navy on behalf of homeowners on Whidbey Island. “That has made their homes virtually unliveable.”

The US Navy, for its part, claims it’s already doing the best it can to reduce the noise.

“The Navy strives to be a good neighbour wherever it conducts operations,” a Navy spokesperson wrote to Capital Daily in an email in January. The Navy also denies that its operations pose long-term health risks. “Airfield noise can disrupt conversations and sleep, but these are not long-term health effects.”

The homeowners suing the government are, however, far from the only inhabitants of the area under the flight path whose lives have been affected by the growlers: endangered species—which both Canadian and American governments are legally bound to protect—live in those waters too.

Importance of quiet

Puget Sound is a noisy place. There’s the shipping traffic in and out of Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, and the busy ports along the shore. There are pleasure craft and ferries, industrial activity, and the bustling activity on land.

Roaring overhead are the planes from SEA TAC airport, coming into YVR in Vancouver and YYJ in Victoria, and of course, taking off and landing at the Whidbey Island naval air base.

But in the misty, mossy forests of the Olympic Peninsula, much of the time the silence is all encompassing. It can be so quiet that you can hear the sound of a hemlock needle fall; or clearly make out the musical bugling of a Roosevelt Elk from a mile away.

The average noise-free interval, if it exists in the other national parks in the lower 48, is measured in minutes—often below 15 minutes. In this section of the Olympic National Park, the length of the noise-free interval could last for hours, and on a calm day, sound levels could drop as low as 22 decibels, even quieter than a whisper. The average refrigerator hums at 50 decibels. The average human conversation emits 60db.

But growler jets roaring overhead can reach above 80db for listeners below, similar in volume to a garbage disposal.  

Gordon Hempton, a career acoustic ecologist for more than 40 years and co-founder of Quiet Parks International, has long had a goal of protecting the Hoh Rain Forest within Olympic National Park from the effects of noise pollution. In 2005, on Earth Day, he designated One Square Inch of Silence in this vast swath of forest, theorizing that if a natural area is maintained in a 100% noise-free condition, then hundreds of miles around it will reap the benefits.

But after 2008, as the Navy ramped up their activity on Whidbey Island, the silence more often became punctuated by the distinctly militaristic noises of growlers.

“It’s immediately alarming,” Hempton said. “It has the initial signature of a flash flood or an avalanche. In both those cases you have very little time to save yourself.

“It’s so high up that I have been unable to see it. But it’s loud enough that you’ll have to raise your voice to talk to someone standing right next to you.”

Because our world has become so noisy, Hempton says, the importance of quiet is often overlooked.

“We find that when we’re quiet, when we’ve found a place that’s relatively free of noise pollution, that we find the most biodiverse places on the planet, the healthiest ecosystems; places that are producing the oxygen we breathe and consuming the carbon that we’re producing,” he said. “Believe it or not, take care of the quiet and everything else takes care of itself.”

The roaring of the jets affects the ability of the animals on land to hear. An owl who is relying on its hearing to find a flying squirrel or a shrew vole 50 feet away will not be able to hear it or lock on to its exact location. It won’t be able to swoop in and catch it to bring it back to the young in its nest.

“You add a growler into the formula and the cafeteria shuts down,” he said. “It just simply cannot happen.”

Outside the thick canopy and below the surface of the water, the story is similar. It’s well-documented that noise from boats and vessels creates a huge disruption for marine mammals, like the endangered southern resident killer whales. A summary of key research by the Washington State Academy of Sciences in 2020 shows that vessels approaching killer whales can hurt the whales’ ability to forage and communicate with each other, which could in turn affect survival levels.

But there are just a handful of studies that look at the effects of aircraft noise.

“The Cold War-era textbooks say ‘don’t worry about jet noise,’” explains Rob Williams, co-founder and chief scientist at Oceans Initiative. He says the thinking at the time was that the noise would bounce off the surface of the water, barely registering beneath the waves. But Williams didn’t believe the received wisdom from before ocean noise was taken seriously.

He placed hydrophones 30 metres under the water just off the base’s runways to measure how much sound the jets produce on takeoff and landing.

Even that deep, the sound roars.

By processing the sound through models of the hearing systems of fish, seabirds, and whales, the scientists could get a sense of how the sound might affect those species. Their determination? “It is loud to those ears,” Williams says.

Puget Sound is home to some of the last remaining Southern Resident Killer Whales, marine mammals so endangered that even kayakers aren’t permitted to drift past them. Disturbances, habitat degradation, pollution, and overfishing have accumulated to depress their population to critical levels. The Navy disagrees that the noise from the airfield is yet another pressure on the whales.

The Navy, which has spent a quarter-billion dollars on environmental research over the past decade, says it hasn’t seen evidence the planes are bothering wildlife.

“In general, most animals habituate to intermittent aircraft noise,” the Navy spokesperson wrote in January, adding that Navy officials take issue with some of the methodologies and conclusions of the study. The Navy’s environmental impact statement mirrors this conclusion, as does a record of decision released in September of this year.

But for Lauren Keuhne, an environmental scientist who worked with Williams on the study, the research was really underscoring the lack of data on the noise of aircraft underwater. And while the Navy’s environmental impact statement is based on the best available science, in this case, the best available science is very limited.

Williams says the team is now working to understand just how pervasive the noise is in the waters further from the runway and whether it’s audible in places like Haro Strait that are more important to the Southern Residents.

The team deployed a more sensitive hydrophone in the strait this summer, and are working to parse through the terabytes of data to see if the growler noise is audible. Williams says the noise, if detected, will be quieter than in the previous study because the jets are flying at a higher altitude, but distinguishing the jet noise through the noise from boats in the area may be challenging.

Killer whales aren’t the only species that could be affected. A lawsuit over the planes’ impact on an endangered seabird species, the marbled murrelet, resulted in the Navy agreeing, essentially, to look into the problem.

But one simple mitigating technology has been considered for years yet still not implemented.

Reducing the noise

The Navy knows it has a noise problem.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is the Fleet’s number one occupational health expense,” a Navy report lamented in 2015. (The report has been removed from the Navy’s website since Capital Daily inquired about it.) Despite high-tech noise-cancelling hearing protection, human and financial costs keep rising. “Disability payments to veterans for hearing loss show a continuing upward trend.”

With that in mind, the US Navy began testing options for dampening the roar of the growers’ engines. They tested water jets that would inject a stream of water into the exhaust—but that created a plume of water that caused “significant corrosion issues” on the aircraft carriers, not to mention requiring that the planes add 2,000 kg worth of water tanks. It made the engines quieter but the Navy dismissed the technology as impractical.

The Navy also tested complicated “variable exhaust nozzles” that, likewise, successfully dampened the noise but caused a loss of performance, so those too were ruled out.

Two other high-tech solutions, involving injections of high-pressure air and “using an electrical field to generate plasma” were dismissed because of the limitations of the engines to produce enough pressurized air and electricity, respectively.

Finally the Navy landed on a solution that fit: chevrons, basically ceramic triangles that help the exhaust mix with the air, slowing the exhaust and quieting the process overall. The effect was “like doubling the distance from a noise source,” according to the Navy’s report, and the reduction in noise was even more pronounced in the frequencies that are most likely to cause hearing loss.

However, while chevrons are widely used in commercial aviation, a Navy spokesperson said more testing is still required and ongoing to ensure their use in high-performance military aircraft is safe.

An international problem

Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association, says noise from growlers has been an issue since even before he started with the organization eight and a half years ago.

“What was originally perceived as a local problem has become a regional one, and even now an international one,” he said.

The Navy has made some changes to reduce the impact of the noise. The September record of decision states that changes have been made to transit flights between Whidbey Island airbase and the Olympic Peninsula training area so that Navy aircraft are not flying directly over Olympic National Park.

According to a Navy spokesperson, there are no published maps of the air traffic control procedure route, but for over a year the aircraft have been flying further west before making a more southerly entry into the military operations areas. This does not change the typical distance these aircraft have historically flown in relation to Victoria, the spokesperson said.

Smith said this change is heartening because it shows the Navy is responding to concerns by changing their operations. But without maps showing the new flight paths, it’s hard to determine exactly what effect this will have on the noise heard on the land and bouncing across the ocean.

“It is displacing the noise and not reducing it,” he said.

The Navy has previously done training out of an Air Force Base in the southern Idaho mountains where the Air Force has a large airspace. But according to the environmental impact statement, the Northwest Training and Testing area is the only suitable location considering the growlers’ training requirements. Instead, the Navy is ramping up growler operations on Whidbey Island. Currently, there are 100 growlers assigned to the base, and this number will eventually rise to 118 operational jets.

According to the growler environmental impact statement, the current number of annual growler aircraft operations is 70,557, which is proposed to increase to 71,554 each year.

Naval flights have been operating out of the Whidbey Island base for decades, but the noise has only increased over the years as the EA-6B Prowler and now the more powerful EA-18G growler have been introduced. With signs pointing to increased operations at the base, Smith and Hempton are increasingly concerned about destruction of natural sounds in the Olympic peninsula, the Juan de Fuca strait, and the surrounding Islands.

“Life is busy communicating. That is what life does,” Hempton said. “And this is a place that deserves to be listened to.”

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Thousands of US growler jets fly south of Victoria each year. Can wildlife handle the noise?
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