Listening to Nature: How Sound Can Help Us Understand Environmental Change

Lambert here: These are new ideas to me, so I’m opening comments on this post to see if readers have relevant experiences to share. Not just country mice. City mice, too!

By Garth Paine, Associate Professor of Digital Sound and Interactive Media, Arizona State University. Originally published at The Conversation.

Our hearing tells us of a car approaching from behind, unseen, or a bird in a distant forest. Everything vibrates, and sound passes through and around us all the time. Sound is a critical environmental signifier.

Increasingly, we are learning that humans and animals are not the only organisms that use sound to communicate. So do plants and forests. Plants detect vibrations in a frequency-selective manner, using this “hearing” sense to find water by sending out acoustic emissions and to communicate threats.

We also know that clear verbal communication is critical, but is easily degraded by extraneous sounds, otherwise known as “noise.” Noise is more than an irritant: It also threatens our health. Average city sounds levels of 60 decibels have been shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate and induce stress, with sustained higher amplitudes causing cumulative hearing loss. If this is true for humans, then it might also be true for animals and even plants.

Conservation research puts a heavy emphasis on sight – think of the inspiring vista, or the rare species caught on film with camera traps – but sound is also a critical element of natural systems. I study digital sound and interactive media and co-direct Arizona State University’s Acoustic Ecology Lab. We use sound to advance environmental awareness and stewardship, and provide critical tools for deeper consideration of sound in nature preserves, urban and industrial design.

Arizona State University professor Garth Paine explains the power of listening as a way to experience the natural world.

Sound as a Sign of Environmental Change

Sound is a powerful indicator of environmental degradation and an effective tool for developing more sustainable ecosystems. We often hear changes in the environment, such as shifts in bird calls, before we see them. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recently formed a sound charter to promote awareness of sound as a critical signifier in environmental health and urban planning.

I have spent decades making field recordings in which I create a setup before dawn or dusk, then lie on the ground listening for several uninterrupted hours. These projects have taught me how the density of the air changes as the sun rises or sets, how animal behavior shifts as a result, and how all of these things are intricately linked.

For example, sound travels further through denser material, such as cold air, than through warm summer air. Other factors, such as changes in a forest’s foliage density from spring to fall, also change a site’s reverberation characteristics. Exploring these qualities has led me to think about how perceptual measures of sound inform our understanding of environmental health, opening a new angle of inquiry around psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound.

Coyotes in Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona.
Garth Paine, CC BY-ND1.25 MB (download)

Altering Sound Environments Affects Survival

Listening workshop at Joshua Tree National Park.
Garth Paine, CC BY-ND

To engage the public and scientific communities in this research, the Acoustic Ecology Lab embarked in 2014 on a large-scale, crowd-sourced project teaching listening skills and sound recording techniques to communities adjacent to national parks and national monuments in the southwestern United States. After completing a listening and field recording workshop, community members volunteer to record at fixed locations in the parks every month, building a large collection of sound captures that is both a joy to listen to and a rich source of data for scientific analysis.

Imagine how climate change could affect environments’ sonic signatures. Reduced plant density will change the balance between absorptive surfaces, such as leaves, and reflective surfaces such as rocks and buildings. This will increase reverberation and make sound environments more harsh. And we can capture it by making repeated sound recordings at research sites.

In settings where sound reverberates for a long time, such as a cathedral, it can become tiring to carry on a conversation as echoes interfere. Increasing reverberation could have a similar effect in natural settings. Native species could struggle to hear mating calls. Predators could have difficulty detecting prey. Such impacts could spur populations to relocate, even if an area still offers plentiful food and shelter. In short, the sonic properties of environments are crucial to survival.

Listening can also promote stewardship. We use the recordings that our volunteers produce to create musical works, composed using only the sounds of the environment, which are performed in the communities that made the recordings. These events are a wonderful tool for mobilizing people around the issue of climate change impacts.

Listening at dusk to the changing soundscape in Joshua Tree National Park.
Garth Paine, CC BY-ND

Mapping Sound and Weather Characteristics

I also lead a research project called EcoSonic, which asks whether psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound correlate with weather conditions. If they do, we want to know whether we can use models or regular sound recordings to predict long-term impacts of climate change on the acoustic properties of environments.

This work draws on psychoacoustics – the point where sound meets the brain. Psychoacoustics is applied in research on speech perception, hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and in industrial design. Until now, however, it has not been applied broadly to environmental sound quality.

We use psychoacoustic analysis to assess qualitative measures of sound, such as loudness, roughness and brightness. By measuring the number of unique signals at a specific location, we can create an Acoustic Diversity Index for that place. Then we use machine learning – training a machine to make predictions based on past data – to model the correlation between local weather data and the Acoustic Diversity Index.

Our initial tests show a positive, statistically significant relationship between acoustic diversity and cloud cover, wind speed and temperature, meaning that as these variables increase, acoustic diversity does too. We also are finding an inverse, statistically significant relationship between acoustic diversity and dewpoint and visibility: As these factors increase, acoustic diversity decreases.

EcoSonic predictions of how acoustic properties of the environment will change with variations in weather, made from recordings done in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The blue line is predictions from our model and the red line is actual data for that day.
Garth Paine

Sounding Futures: Art, Science and Community

Sound quality is critical to our everyday experience of the world and our well-being. Research at the Acoustic Ecology Lab is driven from the arts and based on sensed experience of being present, listening, feeling the density of the air, hearing clarity of sound and perceiving variations in animal behavior.

Without the arts we would not be asking these perceptual questions. Without science we would not have sophisticated tools to undertake this analysis and build predictive models. And without neighboring communities we would not have data, local observations or historical knowledge of patterns of change.

All humans have the capacity to pause, listen and recognize the diversity and quality of sound in any given space. Through more active listening, each of us can find a different connection to the environments we inhabit.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

26 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    There has been quite a bit of research on the impact of noise on birds, and this indicates that pervasive noise does have a very significant impact. Some birds, for example, can’t find mates if they are near a road as it interferes with mating songs. Its also a significant issue for birds of estuaries and mudflats as noise travels especially far across open mud and water – so noise from a distant highway can disturb roosting and nesting birds in subtle ways.

    Even more difficult to measure is the interraction of sight and sound. For example, research indicates that birds are less disturbed by noise if they can’t see the source. I’ve come across examples in this in designs for lesirue walks along tidal estuaries – they’ve found that if roosting birds can see the movement of people or dogs then they are more likely to be disturbed than if a low barrier shields them from this sight (even if the barrier isn’t high enough to stop the sound of footsteps or dogs barking). Hence well designed walks and cycleways now use berms and low fences to minimise disturbance.

    Reply
  2. Amfortas the hippie

    you get used to the quiet of the back country after a while.
    when i was a teenager, in east texas, i noticed one moonlit night that i couldn’t consciously hear the eternal crickets….try as i might.
    this bothered me,lol.
    so paying attention to the sound of the world is something I learned to pay attention to(when I go back there, the crickets, mighty gears of the Universe, are loud as hell)
    a few years ago, when we were still living in town, a high school friend came to visit—january, cold—and we had just begun working on this place for our eventual return.
    the little town was loud, to me…but to him(lived in the Montrose part of Houston) it was uncomfortably quiet.
    when I brought him out here one cold, clear evening…not even wind….he got agitated…”it’s too quiet!”
    the lonely car on the highway five miles away…the coyotes, somewhere far to the north….otherwise utter silence…a palpable silence.
    he feared he would lose his mind, and begged to return to the little town.
    I wonder how Dr Paine controls for the subjectivity of our awareness of sound.
    I also note, that the time i’ve spent of late in the hospital, and in the big city in general…the biggest psychological discomfort…almost beneath awareness, like my crickets…is the noise. the hospital is like being inside some great machine…whirrings and knocks and sighs behind the walls, beneath the floors. I asked a few of the nurse’s aides about it…they couldn’t hear it(subjectivity and used-to, again).
    when I would come home on the weekend to check on the boys, I’d sit under the Big Oak to decompress. it was september, still summer…so loud, all things considered….but quiet as the grave compared to san antone.
    kudos to Dr Paine for thinking to study this.

    Reply
    1. lordkoos

      I was born with excellent hearing which serves me well when working as a musician and recording engineer, but It’s a mixed blessing as “noise” really has an impact. The older I get the more I notice it. I grew up in a small rural town that was pretty quiet but for the sound of trains passing though every few hours, echoing around the valley. At night, we heard frogs, crickets and other insects, while in the winter snow deadened sounds. I lived in a city for many years, but I never did get accustomed to the roaring sound of the interstate day and night, it always bugged me. On the other hand, a friend of mine who grew up in Miami finds the sound of cars on the freeway comforting. Personally I enjoy quiet very much, perhaps because I spent so much of my adult life working as a musician playing loud music, (mostly in spaces where acoustic design was an afterthought, if thought of at all), and also because my family liked to go into the wilderness on weekends when I was young, so I was accustomed to the sounds of nature, or lack of sounds. I think it’s common for city people to feel uncomfortable in the natural world where it’s usually quiet. One of my pet peeves is how so many modern buildings have terrible acoustics — favorite construction materials being concrete and glass (some of the best acoustic spaces I’ve been in were wooden barns). Sound as part of the human environment seems to be completely overlooked by modern architects unless they are designing a concert space for classical music.

      Reply
      1. marku52

        One of the best rooms I ever mixed sound in was a bar room in the Queen Mary. Deep carpeting and rosewood paneling. Sounded exquisite.

        One of the worst was the mastodon diorama room in the LA museum of Natural Science. All marble and echoes.. I guess more mastodons might have helped (lol).

        Reply
      2. Antagonist Muscles

        All of my senses are extraordinarily keen. I may have been born this way, but I am not certain because I am convinced that keen senses can be developed, at least to some extent. As with lordkoos, this is a mixed blessing. From my perspective, there are many sounds that are too loud, lights that are too bright, odors that are too strong, and meals that are too salty. Of course, being able to distinguish faint sounds and to navigate a dark room has obvious advantages. It is certainly no coincidence that I have worked in the audio industry.

        I am definitely not a skilled or experienced outdoorsman, but there is something particularly peaceful about sounds emanating from nature. I have to purposely seek out these natural sounds because the unabated encroachment of sounds from the human world have a detrimental effect on my health and cognition. Professor Paine pointed out how if noise threatens human health than noise may threaten the environment and the rest of the living world. This certainly rang true for me as I pondered how noise affects me and how noise may hurt plant and animal life.

        The constant humming noise of a typical office from computers and air conditioning tends to overwhelm me. I have observed that my mental ability is slightly less sharp after some time in the office environment. A very noisy environment like a construction site is disastrous on my cognition. Fortunately, this is not a problem at home, where I usually scan NC for the meatiest stuff to read and then print the article so I can read it outside, away from indoor lights and noises. Yes, I am kind of a Luddite.

        Happy New Year to everyone here at Naked Capitalism.

        Reply
  3. Wukchumni

    It’s quiet here on the front porch of the back of beyond, but even more so in the backcountry where electric lights fear to spread, enhancing your hearing once the Sun sets. Except for a few years of using a Walkman when traipsing around the Sierra Nevada, i’ve always been in tune with the sounds of nature and attentive to its sense of place. High country meadows are teeming with sound, as the locals appreciate them as much as humans do, as a rendezvous.

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  4. Rosario

    Interesting stuff. I would add light pollution in urban areas (mining sites as well). That also has a dramatic effect on wildlife. Sea turtle hatchlings come to mind at touristy coastal towns. The sky is so damn pretty when you can see most of it.

    I was going into the article thinking it was going to discuss the loss of natural sound (i.e. insects, frogs, toads, birds, etc.). Unfortunately not data driven, but I’m pretty sure I have noticed a decrease in “natural” sounds since I was a child.

    Reply
  5. anon in so cal

    This looks like a very interesting article; bookmarked for later!

    Miscellaneous (from Los Angeles (Hollywood Hills)):

    We live in a canyon, which forms a natural amphitheater. On quiet nights, we can hear a Common Poor Will and, in warm weather with the windows open, a Western Screech Owl with its “bop, bop, bop, bop.”

    On noisy nights, we can hear neighbors’ pool filter motor, jacuzzi motor, hot water heater, etc.

    Some nights, we can hear trains, which are about 25 miles away.

    Separately, some neighbors wanted to conduct a noise study, for legal purposes. These are expensive.

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  6. Lee

    As much as one may be tempted to do so, it is illegal for humans to howl like a wolf in Yellowstone, or to mimic any other animal call. At home I do howl with my dogs when a fire truck goes by.

    At this time of year on most days a swarm of bush tits lights in a tree outside my window filling the air with their rapid, non-stop twittering as they hop and peck frenetically among the branches for a time then launch themselves as one to the next tree. I wish I had some clue as to the content of these lively conversations.

    Reply
  7. Bill Smith

    I’ve been canoeing, kayaking & camping in some pretty remote places. In some of the places a reservation was required to enter the area and I needed to move along to the next camping site each day. Each overnight spot accommodated at very small group.

    Once I ended up at one such spot with another canoe that had two people making nature documentary. There made four of us about a day’s paddle from anyone else. One of them remarked how hard it was to find a place with no man made sound in the background. They made that comment as we heard a passing jet over us. Likely above 30,000 feet but we still heard the faintest of sounds from it.

    Reply
  8. JEHR

    I have been guilty of imitating the call of the mourning dove and individual doves will come close to see who is making all the racket. I don’t do it very often now. I used to walk about an hour into the woods beside a small river and I saw all sorts of animals–deer, porcupines, coyotes, beaver, foxes, skunks, muskrats, mink and birds of all kinds most of which I do not know their names although I would keep track of their coloring and their song and look them up in a bird book. Two little coyote babies were once sunning in our back yard and I chased them away because I wanted them to be afraid of human beings. Later I saw one of them as a juvenile and he looked very scabby (sad). I once saw a dead coyote on the trail and that was the last time that I went so far into the woods. I had just heard about a runner who had been attacked and killed by a coyote in Quebec. I’m pretty chicken (sorry about the usage!).

    I’ve seen more than my share of dead deer. This year alone I have seen four dead deer on my walk and the winter is just beginning. I’m glad that I don’t often come across a deer who is just injured and crying although I did see two deer once–one on the ground in great pain with long legs flailing in the air from being hit by a car and the other one keeping watch nearby. We called the natural environment guys and they came and took care of the dying deer. That is one thing that I find really hard to see–dead deer hit by cars. Around where I live it is a veritable bloodbath on the roads in the spring when the young are searching for their own territory and in the fall when they are looking for a place to winter safely. Then I see mostly dead raccoons and skunks.

    We human beings are guilty of so much tragedy in both the animal world and our own. I have such admiration for scientists like David Suzuki who is much reviled by anti-environmentalists.

    Reply
    1. anon in so cal

      I remember when that attack occurred. Scary. At the time, some speculated that those particular coyotes had some wolf genes, as the attack was so unusual. Apparently, East coast coyotes do, indeed, have more wolf genes than western coyotes, and are larger, etc.:

      “As coyotes moved through Ontario and Quebec, they picked up significant amounts of wolf genes, with the result that eastern coyotes are markedly bigger than their western counterparts. Compared to pure western coyotes, the eastern hybrids average five to 16 pounds heavier (up to 46 pounds) and they have larger skulls as well. They also have bigger territories, and show a greater tendency to prey on larger ungulates such as deer. In short, they are more wolf-like, which makes them more capable predators.”

      https://www.explore-mag.com/when-coyotes-attack

      We’ve got a lot of coyotes in our neighborhood. I’ve got a photo of two that got into our fenced back yard.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I have read that some of these coyowolves have also picked up dog genes from species domestic dog, leading to coyowolfdogs. Which might be less afraid of people and more prone to attack.

        Reply
  9. Jeremy Grimm

    I recall the scene in the movie “Interstellar” where a tape of the sounds of a thunderstorm served as a calming influence. Sounds not just the music make a remarkable difference in the Cinema and although they are part of many video games I feel the contributions of a soundscape receive much less regard than visuals or sound effects for weapons and vehicles. Just as sound is given less regard than sight, I wonder about smell as field of perceptions. For many animals the world is much more a world of smells and sounds than of sight. How do other creatures perceive and experience their worlds? It might provide an interesting point-of-view for some descriptive writing. I imagine sounds may have great significance to creatures who live in the water.

    I remember having to work in environments with very high sound levels. The noise was more fatiguing than any work I did. I became a constant user of eyeplugs. I am especially irritated by the wash of sounds I experience in a city and even in my little town, sounds I can’t safely ignore in some cases. Few days go by that aren’t disrupted by the noise from trucks, lawn mowers, or leaf blowers. I regularly wear eyeplugs to bed. Now I have trouble sleeping when I don’t. I can’t imagine how the noise impacts the wildlife around me, such as there is. The world would seem a very different place through a different dominance mix of the senses.

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  10. polecat

    I would always tune in to the radio program ‘Music from the Hearts of Space’, back in tne 90’s, which came on at 9pm Sundays … very soothing and, well, spacey .. good to fall unconscious to.
    With regard to natural sounds, I notice how sharp the sounds are after we get a lowland snowfall. Very quiet, but punctuated by sparpened, carried sound .. be it children a few blocks over, sliding in it … the geese coasting over it, with their version the Doppler Effect as they pass by … or some a-hole driving too fast for conditions ( it’s only natural, right ?), and wiping-out in it ” Zeeeeee … Errrrr ..CUWUMPPP!”
    During the summer, when our backyard hives are in high gear, building up their numbers, the bees are sometimes so loud, they drown out street noise ! When the drones make their entry back to the hive late in the afternoon, they sound like a tiny blundering version of a Galaxy C-5, compared to the foragers, the F-16s.

    Reply
  11. The Rev Kev

    I think that another factor is natural sounds as much as animal and insect sounds. Put in the search term ‘rain sounds’ or ‘nature sounds’ in the search bar to see a variety of videos playing sounds of rain, thunderstorms, surf and the like that helps take off the edge for a lot of people. People do miss it even though they may not be aware of it. There was one famous athlete that went to the Olympics a long time ago and she was asked what she missed most about home. She thought about it and answered that it was the sound of rain on a tin roof and most people knew exactly what she was talking about.

    Reply
    1. Antagonist Muscles

      The suggestion by The Rev Kev and other commenters to listen to recordings of rain sounds or natural sounds won’t fly for me. Although I have some fancy audio equipment for music playback, my ears literally hurt when I listen to recordings of sounds of nature. For reasons beyond my knowledge, direct recordings of nature sounds cause me listening fatigue, but I enjoy music that incorporates nature sounds. Audio compression on YouTube is so overdone that I seldom listen to anything on YouTube. Nevertheless, this Robert Rich music is the kind of stuff I dig, i.e. the lossless flac version.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        These sort of natural sounds may be more necessary that thought. I cannot find a source on Google but I seem to recall that work was done decades ago where natural sounds would be piped a through ships for the mental health of the crew. It was in the form of a subliminal sound as an experiment. As it is not done nowadays, either the experiment did not work or it was simply never followed up.

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  12. Posaunist

    I recommend the podcast “Sound Matters.” It covers all things sound, natural and artificial, rural and urban — even non-terrestrial. Headphones are a good idea for best enjoyment / study.

    Reply
  13. Norb

    One way or another, human creativity and health is dependent on the natural world for inspiration. This connection provides richness and meaning to life. Will that connection be a give and take relationship or one of just taking- as our current lifestyles demand. Sever this tie with nature, and human nature is fundamentally altered. It is a life of alienation.

    An argument can be made that all human creativity and culture reflects this mimicry and appreciation of the natural world. What happens when humans have altered the planet to such an extent that feedback is not a two way system? Man to nature – nature to man? Just man-to-man living with technology as the lone feedback? What happens to inspiration when species extinction and environmental degradation expand even further? This is a very dangerous situation, but we are all headed in that direction at full speed. Living only with cats and dogs is where we are headed.

    Here is a choral group taking rain as inspiration.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29qaN0M0o0s
    The spontaneous human response of joy and excitement when the group simulate thunder is what the good life is all about! A recognition of the human/ nature relationship. Its the root of all singing and music creation.

    Humans need to be able to contemplate the world in order to stay sane. Living in a world of technological cacophony will be our undoing.

    Listening and interpreting is a fundamental process- but the activity must be approached with purpose.

    In this manner, I see art as a way to make people aware of the human predicament we face- if only to show what is being lost. I believe this is why the fear of silence is so prevalent today. To not fear silence, one must be attuned to the rhythms of life. Today, it is all go-go-go, all day long.

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  14. Wukchumni

    The coyote chorale gets going in the distance a few miles away each morning around 5 am, when i’m soaking in the hot tub.

    They last about a minute, and then fade. A roll call of sorts.

    Reply
  15. Ray Phenicie

    I’ve found listening to the sound of rain on the roof of a car to be fascinating. The rain seldom comes down in an exact, even manner. The tempo of the rain drops increases and decreases several times in the course of just one minute. Additionally the actual dynamics of the sound is variable with several patterns emerging as to intensity.

    The same can be found for the sound of rain hitting open puddles, pavement, grass or leaves; it always varies and patterns can be determined by careful listening.

    Reply
  16. Ignacio

    There is a particular moment of the day just before dawn when nocturnal creatures stop their activity and diurnal didn’t wake up when silence is more prevalent in nature. Eric Rohmer captured this moment in one of his movies.

    Reply

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