The Extinction of Quiet

Noise pollution is linked to health problems and some argue it interferes with our natural connection to the earth. As the world’s quiet places disappear, are we forgetting how to listen?

In 1989, “acoustic ecologist” Gordon Hempton received a grant to document and record the natural sounds of Washington state. He identified 21 wilderness places to record—sites unsullied by the sounds of traffic, aviation, construction, and other man-made noise. Twenty-five years later, only three of those sites remain muted.

Little by little, our world is becoming louder, with the creeping spread of noise pollution infiltrating our homes, our workplaces, and even our wilderness. Hempton, whose work for the past 30 years has been traveling the world to survey and record natural sound, says he’s seen firsthand how the hum, ping, and roar of modern life has taken over our soundscape. By his count, the United States has only 12 remaining truly “quiet places,” which he defines as somewhere you can go for at least 15 minutes without hearing artificial sound at dawn, the hour when sound travels farthest.

“That dawn period is a really important time, because it’s when wildlife can vocalize and send their message the greatest distance with the least energy,” he says. “It’s a beautiful time to listen.”

With his nonprofit organization, the One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, Hempton is seeking to designate a “silence sanctuary” within the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park. While preserves have been created to protect rivers, forests, and even the darkness of the night sky, he notes, “There is not one place on planet Earth set off-limits to noise pollution.”

While exposure to high noise levels has long been a known cause of hearing loss in humans, recent studies have also linked noise pollution to conditions like heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.

Researchers are also studying the impact of industrial and urban noise on the natural environment. A 2009 study in the journal Current Biology found that noise pollution reduces biodiversity by increasing the population of urban-adapted birds and driving out more noise-shy species. A study published in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2007 found that excessive noise disrupted the pair bonds of zebra finches, perhaps by drowning out the birds’ mating calls. Numerous studies have also pointed to the negative effects of underwater noise pollution, including a 2013 study published in Ethnobiology and Conservation that found that noise from motorboats was disrupting the communication of estuarine dolphins in Brazil.

Hempton calls noise pollution “the canary in the coal mine,” noting that the sounds that impact our acoustic environment—the rush of freeway traffic or the roar of a jet passing overhead—are closely tied with our consumption of fossil fuels.

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