Noise and wildlife

National Parks: Why quiet matters

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

On May 4, Science and Phys.org™ published news reports about a recent, significant, multi-year study about the pervasiveness of noise pollution in 492 national parks and natural areas across the U.S.

In “Noise Pollution is invading even the most protected natural areas,” Science writer Ula Chrobak notes that:

The great outdoors is becoming a lot less peaceful. Noise pollution from humans has doubled sound levels in more than half of all protected areas in the United States—from local nature reserves to national parks—and it has made some places 10 times louder, according to a new study. And the cacophony isn’t just bad for animals using natural sounds to hunt and forage—it could also be detrimental to human health.

Under the study, researchers from the National Park Service and Colorado State University “recorded noise at 492 sites across the country with varying levels of protection, [and] used the recordings to predict noise throughout protected areas in the rest of the country.” They also estimated naturally occurring ambient noise and compared the noise levels with and without humanmade noise. The results were damning: noise pollution doubled sound levels in 63% of protected areas and caused a 10-fold increase in 21% of protected areas.

And the impacts of that noise pollution affect all living things withing these areas.  Phys.org reports interviews Rachel Buxton, the study’s lead author and post-doctoral researcher, who states that “[t]he noise levels we found can be harmful to visitor experiences in these areas, and can be harmful to human health, and to wildlife.” The noise pollution findings means that “noise reduced the area that natural sounds can be heard by 50 to 90 percent,” which “also means that what could be heard at 100 feet away could only be heard from 10 to 50 feet.”

So what is the impact on humans and wildlife?  Phys.org explains:

This reduced capacity to hear natural sound reduces the restorative properties of spending time in nature, such as mood enhancement and stress reduction, interfering with the enjoyment typically experienced by park visitors. Noise pollution also negatively impacts wildlife by distracting or scaring animals, and can result in changes in species composition.

High levels of noise pollution were also found in critical habitat for endangered species, namely in endangered plant and insect habitats. “Although plants can’t hear, many animals that disperse seeds or pollinate flowers can hear, and are known to be affected by noise, resulting in indirect impacts on plants,” said Buxton.

The study results have been widely reported, showing that there is real interest in protecting our national parks and natural areas.  Researchers know that “many people don’t really think of noise pollution as pollution,” but they hope that this study will encourage more people to “consider sound as a component of the natural environment.”

The National Park Service’s huge portfolio of parks and natural areas provides a huge canvas for researchers concerned about the impacts of “noise pollution.” You may be surprised to learn that the National Park Service has a research division called “Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division” that has been looking for several years at the effects of noise not only on visitor experiences, but also on plants and animals. Their work is fascinating and resulted in a 2014 report from the National Academy of Engineering called “Preserving National Park Soundscapes.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The danger of noisy oceans

Photo credit: Samuel Blanc licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We have posted before about how ocean noise is causing damage to various species of whales, so it should be no surprise to hear that human noise has thoroughly invaded our oceans. The Islands’ Sounder spoke to Christopher Clark, a bioacoustic engineer who he studies biology and acoustics, who discusses how “ambient noise from ships” interfered with his research on whales. Clark said that “[w]hat was eerie was that he could hear [ships’] rumble, but the ships were so far away they might as well have been invisible.” “North Atlantic right whales, like the Southern resident Orcas, are endangered,” adds Clark, who “suspects noise is a contributing factor for both species.” “You can’t listen to the ocean for any length of time without encountering human noise,” he laments.

The damage is not limited to whales, as ocean noise is damaging other species. Matt Soergel,The Florida Times-Union, reporting on research on dolphins in the St. Johns River, writes that researchers were surprised to find that “there’s no place [in the area they studied] immune to man-made sound,” and they are not sure why.  As for the effect on dolphins, the researchers aren’t quite sure, but “dolphins, especially in the murky tannin waters of the St. Johns, rely on sound to communicate and to hunt,” and the St. Johns’ dolphins have shown a decline in health.

And seals are suffering too, as researchers from the University of St. Andrews have discovered that “[s]eals may experience hearing loss from underwater vessel noise.” Although the researchers have said that there was “no evidence that seals were exposed to noise levels high enough to cause permanent hearing damage,” lead author Dr. Esther Jones added that “[u]rbanisation of the marine environment is inevitably going to continue, so chronic ocean noise should be incorporated explicitly into marine spatial planning and management plans for existing marine protected areas.”

Noise is not just a nuisance, it’s a public health issue for all species on this planet.

 

 

 

Mallgoers would rather deal with pigeon poop than noise

Photo credit: Fritz Park licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mary Beth Quirk, the Consumerist, reports that “shoppers at one New York mall would rather risk getting hit by bird droppings than listen to the sounds coming out of the complex’s speakers.”  Apparently officials at the Rego Center Mall in Queens, New York City, installed a sound system “that blast[ed] noisy bird calls every 30 seconds or so,” to deal with an infestation of pigeons that were nesting and defecating near one of the mall entrances. But the law of unintended consequences prevailed, as the noise got on many shoppers’ last nerve.  One shopper, who claimed that he had “been pooped on previously at the mall,” said that he preferred “the risk of falling feces to the noise coming out of the mall speakers.”

 

 

Is it too late to save the orcas?

Wanyee Li, Toronto Metro, reports that researchers are concerned about the state of the health of the 78 remaining orcas of the Salish Sea orca population.  “The killer whales are declining for a variety of reasons ranging from infection, starvation, and conflict with large ships, both head-on and from the noise pollution they emit.”  Researchers say they know what to do to save these animals, but the problem is finding the political will to do it.

Kim Dun, an oceans specialist with  World Wildlife Fund Canada, said that “noise pollution is among the biggest threats to the whales,” because a “noisy environment that makes it harder for the whales to do what they need to do to survive.”  The combination of threats is enough “to choke the iconic animals until there are not enough whales to keep the population alive.”

In related news, recordings show that baby humpback whales and their mothers “whisper” just in case killer whales are nearby.  Ecologists studying the humpbacks say that this determination highlights the need to regulate ocean noise, because the discovery “suggests that human-produced machinery sounds could be particularly harmful to calves and their mothers.”

 

The natural world isn’t necessarily quiet or peaceful

Meet some of the world’s noisiest animals. They had me at synalpheus pinkfloydi, “a newly discovered species of pistol, or snapping shrimp, which uses its large pink claw to create a noise so loud it can kill small fish.”  How loud?  Try 210 decibels, which may be enough to kill a man as well.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

Why do whales beach themselves?

A new study suggests that they are trying to escape noise, reports news.com.au. The study “has found that startled beaked whales swimming away from low frequency sonar boost their energy consumption by more than 30 per cent.” Why is this important? Because the “study showed a big difference in the energy cost of whales swimming normally and attempting to escape danger,” and suggested that “In some cases fleeing whales might run out of steam and become washed up on beaches.”

Noise is not just a nuisance.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

Fido to human: More Bob Marley, mon.

Your dog thinks your favorite band sucks.

Study finds that dogs are happier listening to soft rock and reggae. Of course, like humans, the preferences weren’t universal, with some pooches preferring other music genres.  But researchers at the University of Glasgow and the Scottish SPCA found that “[r]eggae music and soft rock were found to provoke the most positive changes in [doggie] behaviour.”  This study followed an earlier “2015 study by the same institutions that found classical music had a calming effect on dogs.”  Now that researchers have determined the absolute favorite canine music genres, the Scottish SPCA is planning to “install sound systems in all its kennels to play Bob Marley and Jon Bon Jovi [Ed.: Really?] to their unsuspecting charges.”

Proving once and for all that your dog is cooler than you are.

LInk via @QuietMark.

The world sounds different than it did a century ago

and it’s not for a good reason. Claire Asher, BBC, reports on how climate change and animal extinctions have altered the way our world sounds.  Asher writes that human activity is changing our natural soundscape irreversibly:

In 2015, a US team of scientists and engineers reported that the loudest sound in some waters now comes from millions of tiny bubbles, which are released by melting glaciers and icebergs. In the fjords of Alaska and Antarctica, the average noise level is now over 100 decibels – louder than any ocean environment recorded before.

And it is more than our oceans that are affected.  Asher notes that “natural spaces are now polluted with human-made noises. As we change forests into farms and drive species to extinction, we are fundamentally changing how our world sounds.”

Click the first link to read this interesting, if depressing, article.

Link via @jeaninebotta.

Noise pollution puts songbirds in danger,

making them more vulnerable to predators. Joanna Lawrence, Natural Science News, reports that researchers have found that “noise pollution prevents songbirds from hearing and responding to alarm calls.”  The researchers discovered that anthropogenic noise, “a form of noise pollution caused by human activities,” makes it difficult for the songbirds to hear alarms, leaving them “vulnerable to predation” (i.e., being eaten by other animals).   The research showed that the birds’ failure to hear and respond to alarms caused them “to continue feeding in dangerous situations.”  More research is needed, adds Lawrence, to “fully understand the ecological impacts of anthropogenic noise.”