Mother Earth Is Falling Silent...and We Aren't Listening

Climate change isn't the only crisis we're facing

Mother Earth Is Falling Silent...and We Aren't Listening
Photo by Andrew Neel via Pexels

There’s a particular trail I love to hike, several miles west of my town. It winds along a river, then up into a little prairie, then back down to the river.

I love making my way down the steep ledge to get to the bottom of the canyon, where the river lies. I love how the rushing rapids get louder and louder as you descend. I love the sound of the hawks that occasionally squawk above the water. I love how those sounds fade as you ascend up into the stretch of prairie. I love the near silence so high above the water, the total stillness that allows you to notice every bee that buzzes by and every squirrel that skitters up a tree. And on a windy day, you might hear the pine trees rustle. Suddenly, you hear the water again as you descend once again toward the river, and within minutes, your senses are overtaken by the sound of tumbling rapids and the silent thrumming of negative ions.

This hike is a very particular symphony that I have come to love over the past year.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I visited this trail in October, and instead of hearing that beautiful rushing river, my ears picked up a loud beeping sound and the grinding of an engine. My companion and I stopped and looked at one another in confusion. Then I caught sight of it: construction vehicles. I remembered reading something about expanding one of the parking lots for that hiking trail. It’s a favorite among locals and our regional population growth has skyrocketed, making it difficult to find parking for outdoor recreation opportunities.

It's a good thing, I suppose. It’s important we make sure everyone has access to the outdoors.

However, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed about how much noise pollution it was causing, ruining the outdoor experience for the hikers - and no doubt, disrupting the wildlife.

It got me thinking about sound. The sounds humans make. The sounds we disrupt. The sounds of nature all around us that we often don't notice.

The earth is a symphony and every living being has its own part in this masterpiece. And for the first time in a very long time, the song is changing.

While this is just one story of one nature-loving hiker about one parking lot on public lands in the Pacific Northwest, this is representative of what scientists are calling a “sonic crisis.” And this crisis has many different aspects.

One is noise pollution and its effects on the environment – much like my experience hiking by the river only to be disrupted by the sounds of construction. Human-made noise pollution is actually a serious danger to other species on this planet.

The changing soundscape also includes more than just noise pollution – it’s an ever-shifting song that reflects an increasing lack of diversity. You might say some “instruments” have gotten louder, while others have grown softer – or, sadly, gone entirely silent. This phenomenon not only reflects the changes in our ecosystems but it affects the behaviors and well-being of the wildlife that live there.

There’s even a third category of the sonic crisis – one that might surprise you and also give you hope...

Human Noise

While this category should be called “noise pollution,” many people have a hard time recognizing what that really means. It’s true that noise pollution can come from many sources, but ultimately, the main cause is the noise made by humans.

Human noise is a vast cacophony that is spreading over the planet like a dark cloud. It includes everything from the proliferation of honking horns as our population booms to the sounds of our airplanes and ships.

It even includes the noises we have erased by actions we’ve taken that have destroyed – and therefore silenced – critical habitats around the world.

The oceans are already in grave danger, thanks to pollution and contamination of all kinds, including noise. Aquatic species are dwindling in number or falling prey to extinction thanks to human activity. But when you factor into that the noise pollution humans are creating, there’s even more cause for concern.

For instance, over 80% of consumer goods are transported by ships – ships that emit around 190 decibels of sound. For context, that’s louder than airplanes at takeoff. Further, sound travels four times faster through water than through air, which means the sounds made by our ships can travel much further, creating far more sonic collateral damage than an airplane.

And with booming population growth, we are on track to create more noise in the ocean – not less. In the past quarter century alone, the global fleet transporting consumer goods quadrupled, and in order to keep up with the economy, this growth will continue. These trends are causing the noise pollution from ships to double every decade.

What does this matter to the ocean habitat and those who live in it? Like many many species, those in our seas often communicate through sound. Communication affects predation, navigation, and even reproduction. The noise of human activity is literally drowning out their ability to communicate, negatively impacting their health, well-being, and ability to survive as a species.

Further, noise pollution can cause stress and other health issues to wildlife, just as it does humans – and this makes some of the threatened marine species extra vulnerable. Oysters are growing at a slower rate, European eels are experiencing abnormal metabolic activity, and higher levels of stress hormones have been found in North American right whales, a critically endangered species. Narwhals, especially vulnerable to noise pollution, will fall silent and still, sinking to depths where the noise from human activities (ice-breaking ships in this case) is less pronounced.

The Silence of Extinction

The United Nations recently published a report that warns of the imminent extinction of one million species on this planet within the next few decades, all due to environmental degradation caused by humans. And thanks to the species loss we have already caused and the critical endangerment of others, we are seeing – and hearing – the effects.

Writer and environmental philosopher, Kathleen Dean Moore made a chilling observation in the preface of her 2022 book of nature essays,  Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World:

“Unless the world acts to stop extinctions, I will write my last nature essay on a planet that is less than half as song-graced and life-drenched as the one where I began to write. My grandchildren will tear out half the pages of their field guides. They won’t need them.”

She notes that many juvenile songbirds are unable to mimic their parents’ calls because the noise of human activity is drowning them out or inhibiting the ability to clearly communicate. Whales and fish – two very noisy species by scientific standards – are facing extinction and leaving vast empty (silent) spaces under our seas that scientists call “a lost aquatic geography of sound.”

Further, the symphonies of natural habitats are becoming increasingly homogenized because of species loss, as well as the introduction of non-native species. Suddenly, habitats across continents are beginning to sound the same.

And though many people believe these issues have no effect on human life, the aforementioned U.N. report reminds us of our interconnectedness. The loss of diversity on this planet means, “…human well-being will be compromised.”

Human Disinterest

The third category of the sonic crisis might be surprising…and also the most significant. It is human indifference.

We, as a species, have become so accustomed to our own noise, that we often don’t  even notice the sounds of nature. Did you know you can hear the sound of a tree dying, if you know what to listen for? Did you ever notice that a congregation of starlings (one of those aforementioned non-native U.S. species) will go completely silent when a human, dog, or other potential predator walks by? Or that you can tell when it’s mating season by the sounds of a species’ vocalizations?

Sadly, many humans do not know how to interpret the sounds of nature – and in fact, most ignore it, entirely. Writer and biologist David George Haskell calls this a “crisis of inattention.” He says:

“Not listening is a form of sonic loss. The crises in which we live are not just environmental…but perceptual. When the most powerful species on Earth ceases to listen to the voices of others, calamity surely will ensue.”

He goes on to describe the danger of living in a world that constantly pulls our attention away from the collective and into the insulated, hazardously narrow scope of our technology. Moore shares these concerns, believing that re-learning how to attune our ears to nature’s symphony is the only way we will ever heal the damage we have done to the planet. She says,

“Listening is an art that we should practice because it does two things. It makes us shut up and it makes us open up. We stop listening just to the songs of me, me, me. When we set aside our own stories, it opens us up so we can listen to the stories of other beings. It’s a skill of empathy… Listening to other people’s stories and other creatures’ sounds is a way of understanding the world from their point of view. It’s a moral training.”

Indeed, many have lamented how blind the human species has been in its large-scale destruction of our own (and others’) habitat. But perhaps we’ve failed on an entirely different sensory level: perhaps we need to listen as much as we need to see.

 You can find more of Y.L. Wolfe's work on her website or on Medium.

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