Meet the Experts — Tracey Dalton

Tracey Dalton, a University of Rhode Island social scientist, researches a variety of topics – public participation, spatial planning and management, shellfish aquaculture, marine protected areas, and governance of linked social and ecological systems – all of which involve human interactions with marine and coastal environments. Here, she shares her thoughts on her studies of the impacts of the Block Island Wind Farm on human activities, as well as her advice for students considering futures within the field of offshore renewable energy.

For Tracey Dalton, a social scientist, the Block Island Wind Farm presents a significant opportunity to study the intersection of people and infrastructure. Looking to the country’s first wind farm and learning how Rhode Island residents and visitors think about and behave around the turbines can provide useful information as other portions of the Atlantic seaboard prepare for the development of offshore renewable energy projects. 

“My work has always been focused on thinking about how people use marine environments and landscapes,” says Dalton, professor and chair of the University of Rhode Island Department of Marine Affairs. “Extending this interest in the human use of ocean space to the Block Island wind farm was a natural fit.”

Having spent a decade studying the local wind farm, Dalton is able to provide an increasingly rich array of data to a wide spectrum of stakeholders – from government, private sector, community, and academic interests – wanting to know if, and how, a wind farm impacts coastal communities. “The fishing community, both commercial and recreational, is clearly seeking to know what the wind farm is going to mean in terms of their livelihoods,” says Dalton. “So there is a real need for this science.” 

Her work, and the studies of colleagues, reveals the complexities of the wind farm’s emergence in the waters of Block Island. On the one hand, fishermen and some residents remain steadfast in their concerns that the wind farm could change fishing grounds and community character for the worse; on the other hand, some fishers are optimistic as fish aggregate at the turbines, and “turbine tourism” could provide a boost to the economy.

And while it’s still way too early to posit how the local wind farm will ultimately impact Block Island and the local economy, Dalton says that sound and consistent science is the key to understanding change. “I think that we’ll probably see both positive and negative impacts, so the continuation of the science is the way that we can build a deeper understanding with which to consider impacts.” 

Students are among the chief stakeholders she seeks to reach through her work, and Dalton says that the knowledge that her classes gain concerning the social science of the wind farm has wide application. “Whether students pursue careers in offshore renewable energy or not, it’s always critical to be able to think in terms of understanding consequences,” she says. “The Bock Island Wind Farm has given us a great opportunity to carry out science in order to understand the consequences and impacts of our actions.” 

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