Natural sounds

Sometimes we need to put up with noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sometimes people have to put up with noise. This fun piece from the Atlas Obscura folks describes a noisy rooster on the French vacation island of Ile d’Oléron. Summer visitors filed a noise complaint with the local authorities, who ruled in the rooster’s favor.

Corrine Dessau, the rooster’s owner, commented that “[t]here’s always been noise in the countryside: frogs, tractors, and, yes, roosters. When you’re in the countryside, you accept the noises of the countryside. And when you’re in the city, you accept the noises of the city. If you don’t like the noise where you are, don’t stay there.”

I would disagree about urban noise. Much if not most of urban noise can be quieted.

But in the countryside, a rooster’s wake up call is part of the charm, and visitors should get used to it.

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.

Beluga whales sing better in a quiet ocean

Photo credit: Diliff licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I first saw beluga whales in the aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, and then last year in the wild in Canadian arctic waters. They are marvelous creatures, with a bulbous head that helps them vocalize and hear the vocalizations of other belugas.

A National Geographic television show discusses research showing that belugas sing better in quieter oceans.

For belugas, noise from ship motors is like ambient noise in a too-noisy restaurant. It makes conversation difficult.

Quiet is better for both animals and people.

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.

Lockdown was a boon for science

Photo credit: Kwh1050 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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

As I have written before on Silencity, the COVID-19 lockdown has given city dwellers around the world the opportunity to hear a landscape with less road traffic, fewer overhead jets, and a slowdown in constructions sounds. Yes, one sound was heard more frequently – birdsong. But on June 22, New York City is entering Phase 2 and the “older, less welcoming sounds” could be returning.

Interestingly, the quieter pandemic environment has given the Quiet Project in the UK the opportunity to map out the lower decibel levels that have occurred during the lockdown, writes Philip Ball of The Guardian. In addition to actual sound recordings, the Quiet Project has asked the public to reflect on how the changed soundscape has affected them. According to Lindsay McIntyre, the director of the company involved in this project, “[e]veryone I speak to has got an opinion on how the changes in noise makes them feel.” For example, as I have noted in earlier writings, some people actually miss the more traditional urban sounds, but what they really missed was what their lives were before the pandemic.

The researchers involved in the Quiet Project hope to use their data in ways that may result, for example, in having planners factor in more “tranquil areas” in cities as we move forward. Seismologists are especially interested in how the pandemic altered human activities. With less human activity, and the accompanying noises they are responsible for, seismologists can detect small earthquakes and this information can tell more about the “state of stress and movement in the crust.” Oceanographers, concerned about the impact of low-frequency noise from ship engines on the communications of marine life, found the change in ocean sounds during the pandemic provided the opportunity to study ship factors that harm marine animals. This finding could “help plan ocean transportation so it is less disruptive to marine life.”

With the pandemic resulting in less noise, scientists were given the opportunity to collect the kind of data that may help them find ways to keep our planet quieter in the near future for all its inhabitants. Out of adversity, can come creativity!

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.

Lessons from “The Great Silence?” Researchers are listening.

Photo credit: Angy DS licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

I’ve been eagerly watching for researchers to probe the effects of this unique, unprecedented period of global silence. Recently, Nick Smith, writing for Engineering And Technology, has reported on academic projects at the Max Planck Institute in Gemany, the British Geological Survey in the UK, New York University in the U.S., and in several other places around the world where researchers are digging into the effects of “anthropogenic noise,” i.e., human-generated industrial noise.

It appears that most of the effort is focused on birds—which would also imply impacts on insects and plants too—but that could just be because Smith was interested in that subject.

The best news is that researchers are actively working on the subject, and therefore we may learn from this moment. As Smith notes, “[a]ssessing the impact that human-generated or anthropogenic noise has on the natural world is fast becoming a growth area in academia.”

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.

The origins of soundscape ecology

Photo credit: Alex Braidwood licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

A wonderful, recent NPR podcast delves into the career and field recordings of Bernie Krause, PhD, who pioneered the emerging discipline of soundscape ecology. This podcast is great listening for the pandemic-induced “great silence” that we’re all currently living through.

Krause’ best known book appeared in 2012, “The Great Animal Orchestra,” which has been described as “the story of one man’s pursuit of natural music in it’s purest form, and an impassioned case for the conservation of one of our most overlooked natural resources, the music of the wild.” But Krause has just recently finished his 8th book—on top of hundreds of discographies. And, if you’re interested, his TED talk is a good listen.

Krause, who was born in Detroit in 1938, spent his early years promoting and performing on the then revolutionary Moog Synthesizer with leading 60s rock groups like The Doors and others. Having moved from the University of Michigan to Mills College in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, he quit the drug-soaked music business and started recording natural sounds all over the world and working for museums and recording studios. From that deep immersion in the natural soundscape, he began developing original theories about sound that have gained him great respect. He’s best known for three core descriptive concepts: “Biophony” (sound from natural, biological sources); Geophony (sound from non-biological,natural sources); and Anthropophony (sound from human sources, including electro-mechanical noise).

Back in 1968, Krause founded his own organization, Wild Sanctuary. Now in his 80’s, he continues to be active in the field. Unfortunately, his home and virtually all of his belongings were destroyed several years ago when one of California’s wildfires swept through his neighborhood. Fortunately, his recorded archives were stored electronically off site, but everything else was gone. Still, he marshalls on, alerting the rest of the world to the concerning sounds he hears–or doesn’t hear.

The Quiet Coalition honors Krause’s pioneering work and his persistence and commitment to connecting our experience of soundscapes to the greatest issue of our time,climate change. The connections between the climate issue, the current pandemic, and the growing global problem of noise are not clear to many people, but Krause clearly understands how they are related.

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.

Experts envision post-COVID cities without noise and pollution

Car-free street in New York City during lockdown | Photo credit: Jim Griffin has dedicated this photograph to the public domain

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

Menios Constantinou, Architecture & Deisgn, writes about how the COVID pandemic and lockdown is giving us the opportunity to envision our cities without the twin scourges of noise and pollution. Constantinou interviewed Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a professorial fellow at the MacKillop Institute for Health Research and a leading environmental epidemiologist, who talked about how he noticed at the beginning of the lockdown that he could hear birds singing as the traffic noise had greatly diminished. Nieuwenhuijsen’s observation led him to reimagine what cities could be.

And he’s not the only one. Nieuwenhuijsen told Constantinou that “[w]hat you see in places like Milan is the policymakers taking advantage of the current situation, and using it as an opportunity to rethink how they plan their cities.” This is also happening elsewhere, with more than a dozen European nations backing a green post-pandemic recovery plan. The money can only be spent once, Nieuwenhuijsen adds, so “we might as well do it in the way that will save more lives in the long term, and create a more just, sustainable and liveable society.”

I’ve been wondering if this flashback we’ve been living in—flashback to what life may have been like before the industrial revolution—would produce any permanent changes when it’s over.

It’s a tough question to answer as we know so little about what happened after previous pandemics. For instance, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 was a social cost of the WWI mobilization–hat flu began with animal to human transmission in Kansas, spread east to Army recruitment centers, travelled abroad, exploded there and then returned to the U.S. in the tragically deadly second wave. And, of course the great plagues in Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries continued episodically for over 200 years because they didn’t have a theory of viral or bacterial disease or know they’re transmitted. That one, of course, then travelled across the Atlantic to North and South America with the Conquistadors and their soldiers and crews—ultimately destroying millions of lives and ending lost-established, indigenous civilizations.

This time we have the opportunity to learn from it. And there are encouraging signs that urban planners are embracing the idea that quieter, cleaner cities are possible, and what’s more, they’re highly desirable. Will that spur an acceleration in interest among city planners and others in doing more to regain that which has been lost to pollution and noise?

We can only hope that what Professor Nieuwenhuijsen comments will be heeded everywhere!

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.

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.