Many of us don’t even notice how much noise pollution is in our daily life. We habituate to the constant flow of noise and we aren’t aware of how much damage noise pollution is causing to ourselves and the natural world around us.
And according to the World Health Organization, the threshold for humans is about 35 decibels. “So when you are experiencing more than 35 decibels, you’re actually creating a stress level on yourself and you’re building up stress hormones,” says Gordon Hempton, founding partner of Quiet Parks International, a non-profit committed to the preservation of quiet for the benefit of all life.
This is why the recommendation for places of healing and restoration – like bedrooms and hospital rooms – is less than 35 decibels. (However, Hempton has measured 90 decibels in some hospitals in the United States.) The effects of noise past a certain decibel creates cortisol in our bloodstream and we are, essentially, shortening our lives (e.g. increasing our likelihood of having cardiovascular disorders).
And non-human animals are affected by noise pollution, too.
“Noise pollution does damage ecological communities. And all the birds, for example, if there is highway noise, they can’t send their messages. They can’t live their life,” Hempton tells ASN. “Another example is that other animals can’t hear their predators.”
The good news is, that seeking out a quiet place in the natural environment is the antidote. However, the bad news is, that finding a truly quiet place is not too easy.
“This is extremely difficult when you consider 80% of the land surface area of the United States for example, is within a quarter mile of a road,” says Hempton. “And road traffic at the time of sunrise, can travel up to 20 miles. So when you actually start looking at the map and say, ‘Where are these quiet places that are 20 miles from a road?,’ you’ll find that there aren’t very many. And ground traffic is not the number one polluter of wilderness areas. Air traffic is.”
Luckily for us, Hempton’s mission with Quiet Parks is to “create a set of classifications, standards, testing methods, and management guidelines for the certification of the world’s pristine and endangered quiet places.” Identifying and verifying these quiet areas helps to keep them preserved.
However, these places aren’t silent. In fact they are richly filled with natural sounds, beautiful subtle sounds, which Hempton challenges us to hear. “I think, the defining trait of a true adventure is the uncertainty. You aren’t completely safe and the outcome of your experience might change you forever. And that’s exactly what listening is. If you are not willing to change, you cannot listen.”
Here, Hempton walks us through some of the quietest parks in North America to truly escape the unnatural noise pollution of the world.
“While Hawaii is a very busy place, Haleakalā crater and Haleakalā National Park is the quietest place on Earth. It has the least sound pressure level of any place that’s been measured on Earth.
“The ancient Hawaiians had a rich heritage in sound. Not only was Haleakalā crater believed to be the birthplace of the island, but it’s also the birthplace of creativity, which I like. I’d like to say this silence is the think tank of the soul.”
“Located in Saskatchewan, Grasslands is one of Canada’s youngest National Parks. Back in 2011 they invited me up there to do a sound survey to document the extent of their natural quiet. And it is, I think, quite reliably [quiet]. We can still visit one of the last great quiet places – as it was at that time, eight years ago – and it still is today.
“It’s also the best example of North American prairie that exists; it’s truly outstanding. I was able to hear, for example, these really low notes that the buffalo make from a distance of approximately eight miles away at dawn.”
“Another park that is on our radar is Big Bend National Park. It is down on the border of Mexico on the Rio Grande. I do not have sound samples of that, but I will later this year. We’re moving forward with the first stages of certification and the first stages of certification is to confirm that it is indeed a naturally quiet place.
“Remember, we aren’t looking for something quieter than a city, we’re looking for the absence of noise pollution. The sonic features of this area that make it particularly unique are the absence of sounds that are compatible with quiet parks certification. And what is very important to note, is that the community wants this designation.”
“A couple of years ago Olympic National Park was the least noise-polluted place in the lower 48, with noise-free intervals commonly hours long. But the big change in the last two years was that the Navy began using the area around (and over) Olympic National Park for electronic warfare exercises with some of the world’s loudest jets. Two cases have been filed against the Navy for violation of due process and public input. We will see if it remains a wonderful place and a quiet park.”
“Part of the Thousand Lakes Region in Northern Minnesota/Southern Ontario, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is off limits to military aircraft for environmental reasons. It’s also a motor-less area, so if you’re going to travel into that area, you’re going to have to paddle.”
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