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Environment / Colorado Edition

As More People Head To National Parks, Program Aims To Mitigate Noise Pollution

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File photo of snow on a subalpine fir branch at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park.

With the whirlwind that 2020 has been, more people than ever are going to national parks as a way to social distance and reconnect with nature. That can mean a lot of additional stress to those resources, including one that most people probably don’t think about.

KUNC’s Stacy Nick spoke with Jacob Job, a research associate and field recorder with Colorado State University’s Sound and Light Ecology Team, to find out more about the impact of noise pollution.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stacy Nick: As part of CSU Sound and Light Ecology Team, you primarily study noise pollution. Now, since we're talking about national parks, I'm assuming that's pretty much anything man-made, correct?

Jacob Job: Yeah, well, at least in our circles, that's what noise pollution means to us — anything anthropogenic or human-associated. So you can think about aircraft flying over — either commercial jets or propeller planes, helicopters — vehicles on the ground, HVAC systems, maintenance, construction, gunshots, voices, music, all the things that are associated with humans.

I will make a distinction, though, that noise pollution is kind of like the term “weed.” When you think about what's a weed in your garden, it's just something you don't want. So one person's noise pollution could be another person's pleasant sound. You can think about people who enjoy the sounds of city life. I define that as noise pollution — the sound of traffic — but some people find that very soothing.

Now, I know that these sounds can be kind of annoying, but what kind of actual impact does noise pollution have?

What that does essentially is it takes away from any wilderness experience someone might be looking for. You can be out of eyesight of any road or building, but you can still hear traffic, you can still hear aircraft. That takes away from that experience at a very fundamental level.

What we tend to look at more importantly is, what does that do for wildlife in the national parks. How does that negatively impact their ability to communicate with each other, to hunt, to avoid predators, to find mates, establish territories? All of that noise we're putting into the environment impacts all of those things.

And then we also look at what does that do to humans. We know that natural sounds are highly beneficial to our health, both our mental health and our physical health. Noise pollution can lead to heart disease, stress, increased blood pressure. It disrupts learning abilities and cognitive ability; it interferes with memory making and memory association. So there are all sorts of negative impacts of noise pollution that make it very important to study.

Right now at the pandemic, we're probably a little more susceptible to that as well. It seems like we're all looking for socially distanced things to do, things that maybe give us some peace and help us reconnect with nature.

I hate to use the word opportunity in the middle of a global pandemic, but the opportunity is that it's getting people to re-engage with the outdoors. We haven't been able to do all the things we normally do, so we've often sought a break or refuge in those places that are outside, around us, that are safe to visit. And so we can be reintroduced to the species that are all around us, learn maybe a few different plant species or watch the seasons change. I think there's an opportunity there to realize just how important healthy, natural environments are to us and reconnecting with that.

But is that actually making things worse from a noise pollution perspective?

Yeah, that's the double-edged sword. We want to encourage people to get outside, but with people comes noise. There are things we can do on a behavioral level directly, what you're doing at that moment. So as you're walking on a trail in a national park, keep your voices hushed, don't yell, don't shout at each other.

I see a lot of people who have their phones and Bluetooth speakers attached to their backpack and so music is blasting into the outdoors, and slamming doors at bathrooms or visitor centers. Just all sorts of little things that may not seem like a big deal, but when they add up over time, it amounts to a decent amount of noise pollution.

At a slightly bigger level, you can make behavioral decisions that have an even bigger impact. Think about the type of vehicle you purchase. There's a cultural aspect of having a big, loud vehicle in some places around the country that creates a very big noise pollution problem. There's no reason our vehicles need to be that loud other than that we just want them to be that loud. And if that's what you like, fine. But just know you're impacting your health, you're impacting everybody else's health around you, you're impacting the enjoyment of people around you, and you're impacting the wildlife that you came to see.

You recently also collaborated with the National Park Service and several other organizations to create the new website, Sounds of Your Park. Tell me a little bit more about that.

"Natural sounds ... are disappearing at an alarming rate."
Jacob Job

What we try to do is create an opportunity for everybody around the world to explore natural places and natural sounds, regardless of your ability to get to those places. Natural sounds — because of noise pollution, because of development, human sprawl across the globe — are disappearing at an alarming rate. And that's because a lot of the species and a lot of the places are disappearing as well.

We wanted to create this interactive website to allow people to see what's out there right now, to get them invested in these places and these sounds. So that way they know what's out there, and they become conservation advocates because they have that much more information. And so all they have to do is log on to the website, go to our map with all the sounds from around the globe and hit play and listen to these really cool sounds from really cool places that people may have never had a chance to experience before.

Do you have a favorite location or sound that you like to listen to?

I'm automatically drawn to high latitudes. I love the Arctic. I love the boreal forest, and so places in northern Canada, Alaska. Listening to wolves or the sound of common loons during the summer; boreal songbirds are just beautiful to me.

But listening to the extraordinary doesn't have to be the extent of our listening. Every day we have an opportunity to step outside and listen to a natural sound around us. Our backyards have birds — from an American robin and house sparrow — some of the most common birds that you can think of. They're out there. Even the wind moving across our yards. I think it's incredibly important that we realize that opportunity is there, no matter where we are, that natural sounds are out there. It's important to slow down and appreciate them because then we can start to understand how we're impacting those natural sounds and the ability to hear them.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 17. You can find the full episode here.

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