Natural sounds

New York City quieted

Photo credit: Aurelien Guichard licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

When Dr. Juan Bello and his associates at New York University initiated a project three years ago to measure the loud sounds of New York City, they had hoped that these sound measurements could assist the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in its efforts to reduce noise pollution. They did not envision that a coronavirus pandemic and lockdown would result in sound measurements establishing that 29 of the city’s quietest days in the last three years occurred during the pandemic.

In their article “The Coronavirus Quieted City Noise. Listen to What’s Left,” Quoctrung Bui and Emily Badger report that the NYU findings reflect what is happening to the urban soundscape worldwide. London researchers have found “consistently lower decibel levels at every London location.” Similarly, researchers in other parts of the world are also finding lower readings. In Nova Scotia, “the noise of cars and airplanes no longer drowns out the rustle of leaves and wind.” Yet, they report, neighbor to neighbor complaints are not down, as intrusive sounds from neighbors may even be more disturbing during this stressful time of quarantine.

The changed soundcape can also alter people’s perception of the sounds around them, they add. For example, the article notes that neighborhood sidewalk chatter which was not disturbing before the pandemic may be bothersome now because people are viewing this chatter as coming from people who are not practicing the required social distancing. Birds are being reported as louder but are probably not singing louder; before the pandemic their sounds were barely heard amongst the surrounding din. I was quoted as noting that people reported that they missed the honking horns and the sounds of the traditional New York City. But I quickly added that what they really miss is their former lives. Dr. Bello summed it up nicely when he said the current sounds of New York City are associated with an aching city and “[i]t’s not a healthy sound in my mind.”

Mark Cartwright of NYU suggests that being able to capture the sounds of city without the jackhammers, honking, commerce, etc. might provide city government with a baseline so that it can then regulate what sounds could be added to the baseline to provide a city with less noise pollution. I concur with him in that the opportunity to think about our aural environment at this time might encourage us to come up with ways to reduce the disturbing din while not changing the pleasant sounds of our urban environment.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Gordon Hempton launches Quiet Parks International

Photo credit: Jose Vega from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Many people know of Gordon Hempton’s fine work as an acoustic ecologist and ‘soundtracker’ and his efforts to establish the “One Square Inch of Silence” project in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park near of Seattle:

Now that work has been transformed into a U.S.-based global nonprofit organization called Quiet Parks International, and The Quiet Coalition co-founder Dr. Arline Bronzaft has agreed to serve on their advisory board. Congratulations to Hampton and his colleagues on this new start, another bold attempt to take human-caused noise pollution onto the global stage.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Our noise disrupts the Earth’s sonic landscape

Photo credit: Eriks Abzinovs from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Bernie Krause, an American musician and soundscape ecologist, began recording the natural soundscape over fifty years ago when he founded the Wild Sanctuary. Thus, it was with alarm that he noted that the drought of a local creek in Northern California silenced the chirping and singing that had been long associated with that park. Climate change, according to Emily Anthes, “will silence some species in their traditional habitats and force them to seek new ones.” Such shifts, she says, could “make it more difficult for wild creatures to attract mates, avoid predators and stay oriented.”

Anthes writes about the harmful effects of climate change on the lives of frogs, birds, shrimp, and whales. She points to the fact that climate change affects the sounds that animals make and it is this ability to make certain sounds that is critical to their survival. Under stress, “the Earth’s sonic landscape faces disruption.” She concludes her piece by stating that “[n]oise decreases the capacity of animals to discriminate information.”

Like the animals described in Anthes’ article, noise also disrupts the health and well-being of humans. Furthermore, man-made noise also intrudes on the capacity of birds and whales to communicate with each other. And let us not forget that climate change, for the most part, results from human activities.

What do I expect readers to bring away from my review of this article? First, that by tuning into the sounds of birds, frogs, whales and other species, we will learn the important role sounds play in their survival and, hopefully, this will lead to actions to protect these animals, especially in their natural habitats. During this COVID-19 pandemic so many people have stated how much they enjoy the singing of birds and the chirping of insects. These sounds, they say, are soothing and pleasurable. Let’s work together after the lockdown is over to lessen the urban din that drowns out these calming sounds.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

How the lockdown allows us to hear nature

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Dr. Richard leBrasseur, who studies the differences between urban and rural landscapes and the influences of these landscapes on human development and behavior, concludes his article “How COVID-19 shutdowns are allowing us to hear more of nature” by asking urban dwellers to go out onto their porch or balcony to listen to the “sounds of nature.” I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and did not need to go onto my terrace to hear the sounds of birds this morning. They awakened me at 6:40 a.m. as they did a few days ago. What a wonderful way to wake up on a street that is usually bustling with traditional loud urban sounds.

Dr. leBrasseur reports on sound measurements of urban and nature sounds taken before the pandemic and then after the pandemic changed our soundscapes. In his February readings in Truro, Nova Scotia, he recorded the sounds of cars, planes, barking dogs, etc. which were rated quite high on the decibel scale used to measure the loudness of sounds. But in April he was recording nature sounds in these same locations which were considerably lower on the decibel scale. While Dr. leBrasseur acknowledges that some people enjoy urban soundscapes, he points to the research that has found that these sounds can still have a negative effect on our health. On the other hand, he cites the research that has demonstrated the benefits of natural sounds to our health. These include “reduced heart rate, reduced levels of anxiety, increased positive emotions, overall wellbeing and increased productivity.”

Urban dwellers generally have to travel to quieter areas to enjoy the sounds of nature and reap their benefits. I wonder if the natural sounds that they are experiencing now can indeed bring them the comfort that is traditionally associated with such sounds. I ask this because the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has elicited feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, many urban dwellers report today that they miss the city sounds that were at one time viewed as disturbing. One cannot blame them for essentially “missing their old lives.”

For now, I agree with Dr. leBrasseur when he says we should go out and listen to nature in our neighborhoods. “It won’t last.”

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Researchers find whales enjoying pandemic quiet

Photo credit: Silvana Palacios from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

While some humans are complaining about the enforced, stay-at-home quiet we’re living through now, biologists are embracing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to research the impacts on other mammals, in particular, marine mammals.

I think it’s wonderful that scientists are using this window in time to compare how other species are doing while we’re locked indoors. Turns out, the researchers say, many animals are doing just fine!

This article in the New York Times provides glimpses into the “re-wilding” of cities around the globe as other species emerge to take over the world we’ve temporarily abandoned. And other videos actually prompt a sense of hope that the planet can heal itself if we’ll just give it a chance.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

April 29 is International Noise Awareness Day

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Wednesday, April 29, 2020, is the 25th anniversary of International Noise Awareness Day. Twenty-five years isn’t quite as big an anniversary as fifty years, e.g, for Earth Day this year, but it is still an accomplishment. The Center for Hearing and Communication started observing this day to encourage people to do something about bothersome noise.

One of the small silver linings worldwide as a result of lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the marked decrease in traffic as people shelter in place, with corresponding decreases in almost all types of transportation noise. Urban dwellers report they can hear birdsong. Of course, when everyone is home, noise from a neighbor who is also at home can be much more annoying than when it only occurs while one is at work.

In general, a quieter world is a healthier world for all living things.  And I will be observing the day by going for my morning walk and listening for the call of the neighborhood’s Cooper’s hawk.

What will you do to celebrate International Noise Awareness Day?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Will the pandemic teach us to listen once again?

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

For an individual who has focused more on her auditory receptor than her visual receptor for the past forty years, I spent much of my time convincing others to pay as much attention to their sonic environment as they do their visual surroundings. I have urged people to recognize the dangers of loud sounds and noise to their hearing and their overall mental and physical health. Similarly, I write about the pleasures of the good sounds around us. The last page of my children’s book “Listen to the Raindrops” (illustrated by Steven Parton) reads:

Moms, dads, girls and boys join together to stop the noise, So that we can one and all, Forever hear the raindrops fall.

As the years passed, I have had more success with my efforts, but now with the coronavirus pandemic it appears that many people who paid less attention to their aural environment than their visual have now awakened to the stimuli that reach into their ears and then impact on their experiences. In “Hopeful birdsong, foreboding sirens: A pandemic in sound,” Leanne Italie writes:

The coronavirus has drastically transformed the world in sound. The routine cacophony of daily life has calmed, lending more weight to the noises left behind. And in those mundane sounds, now so unexpectedly bared, many have found comfort, hope and dread.

Italie goes on to explain how the sounds she is now tuned in to affect the listeners emotionally. Ambulance sirens break ones heart, but the balcony singing in Europe and the applause and whooping at 7 p.m. in New York, saying thank you to our medical care workers, is viewed as uniting people. The increased silence has made people more aware of the snippets of sound in the street when they venture out, Italie writes. She also writes about the visually impaired who depend on the sounds around them to navigate their streets. The article ends with a call to keep listening.

I strongly agree that we should keep listening as I have said for all these years. Become aware of the too loud health-damaging sounds, e.g. aircraft, rail and road noises and advocate to lessen them so that we can all appreciate the quiet that brings comfort as well as allowing us to forever hear the raindrops fall.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Takeways from a silent pandemic

Photo credit: Hakan Tahmaz from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coaliton

The Quiet Coalition co-founder Arline Bronzaft, PhD, was interviewed by Newsday a few days ago. The long-time researcher and noise activist known for her work on noise and its impact on children’s education that began 50 years ago hopes humans around the world will learn a big lesson from this locked-down quiet period.

We all need to listen to nature! The rest of nature—the nonhuman parts—have been trying to tell us something for a long time and we just haven’t been able to hear it: when the noise stops, so does much of the air pollution we accepted as “normal.” The sky is bluer now, the air is breathable and sweeter, and we can hear birds singing—all because the dirty industrial processes that generate most of the noise are at a standstill.

Once this is over, can we hang onto some of those benefits? Is there a way to seize this moment to figure out how to lead quieter, less stressful, less polluting lives?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Animals thrive in the silence of the pandemic

Photo credit: Aleksandr Neplokhov from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

While I hold a Ph.D. in psychology and have taught and done research in the field of psychology, I have to confess that my major in college was zoology. This might explain my interest in species other than humans as well as my concern for their survival on this planet, especially when human beings have treated the earth so shabbily. Thus, while my research and writings focus on how sound and noise impact on people, I am still drawn to studies on the sounds of animals, especially those of Bernie Krause who is well-known for his work in bioacoustics.

Abby Wendle in “Human Life is Literally Quieter Due to Coronavirus Lockdown,” asks how the natural world is reacting “in the absence of all the noise we usually make.” She turns to Bernie Krause, who has recorded sounds in the natural world for the past fifty years, for an answer. He responds by telling her about the time he was recording thousands of frogs gathering in the Spring at a lake in California only to have their gathering interrupted by overhead jets. When the frogs tried to regather, they became vulnerable to owls and a coyote who “came in and picked off a couple of frogs.” Mr. Krause goes on to say how our helicopters, tractors and traffic creating lots of noise harm birds as well as frogs.

Yes, man-made noises endanger the lives of other species in our environment as well as being hazardous to our hearing and overall mental and physical health. So now with greater quiet in our world, due to what I would consider a horrific pandemic, frogs, birds, and numerous other species are being harmed less. Ms. Wendle says that with this newfound stillness “the earth, is, like, literally humming underneath our feet.” She concludes that with humans now interacting with their world differently, e.g. listening to insects buzzing in flowers, it might be possible that when this pandemic “passes,” they will remember the effects of their noises on the well-being of other species. Possibly, we humans will then be more respectful of other animals to which this land also belongs.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

The virus’ unintended consequence–the air is cleaner, quieter

Photo credit: Flora Westbrook from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In my earlier writing, I had suggested that studies would be forthcoming that would focus on the impacts of reduced sound levels brought about by reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. What is obvious to many of us, especially those of us living in urban centers, not just researchers who are tuned in to environmental sounds, is that surrounding sound levels have now been reduced. Fewer cars on the road, fewer nearby train sounds, and fewer overhead aircraft have resulted in less noise intruding into the lives of residents who are disturbed daily by the loud sounds of cars, trains, and aircraft. In New York City, with so many people confined to their homes, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians on major thoroughfares is gone.

Marina Koren’s article in the Atlantic this week is entitled “The Pandemic is Turning the Natural World Upside Down.” Ms. Koren writes that there has been a significant decrease in air pollutants as measured by earth-orbiting satellites. She adds that there is also “significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains and other transportation.” In her piece, she writes about Dr. Erica Walker, a researcher in Boston, who has studied and written about the acoustic environment. Dr Walker has recently taken her decibel meter to measure the sound levels in her community. And since she has written about noise pollution in her city for several years, she can make comparisons of sound levels before and after the Coronavirus. Dr. Walker now reports, using actual sound measurements, that her city has become much quieter.

With less urban noise, city dwellers are now hearing more bird singing, Koren notes. She writes that oceans are quieter today and reports the finding that “whales in the bay experienced a drop in their stress-level hormones.” No surprise, as cruise ships and other maritime vessels bring about an increase in sound levels in the ocean and these higher levels of sound “can increase stress-hormone levels in marine creatures, which can affect their reproductive success.”

As a long-time researcher and writer on the adverse effects of noise on our health and well-being, I never hypothesized about a world with less noise resulting from strict limitations on those human behaviors that have made our planet a noisier one. Nor did I envision that these limitations would come about because of a virus—a microscopic organism that needs host organisms to replicate.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.