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Silence reveals sounds


We’re starting to realize more and more that we’re making a lot of noise, says Raphaël Proulx, a landscape ecologist from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières (UQTR). This researcher documents the interactions between living beings and their environment.

For several years, he has been interested in noise and its impact on living species. We meet him on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, right next to the Laviolette bridge in Trois-Rivières, when his objective is to measure the noise level in the river. There are merchant ships passing offshore. You can hear them very well even on the banks. We can also hear the vibrations of the bridge. Up to a certain point, the bridge traffic can reverberate through the vibrations of the pillars.

Raphaël Proulx in a rowboat.

Raphaël Proulx of UQTR studies the impact of noise on fish in the St. Lawrence River. Photo: TurnedNews.com / Hans Campbell

Studies have long shown that noise from marine traffic has an impact on marine mammals. Boat noise has a distorting effect on communication between whales. Raphaël Proulx is interested, this time, in the effect of noise on fish.

It may seem surprising, but some species have quite developed hearing acuity. Among these species, there are redhorses, suckers, all catfish such as bullheads, brill as well as fish of the cyprinidae family such as carp and small forage fish. It is thought to be for getting around, probably finding food sources or for navigation under water. But it’s not yet clear why they have such good hearingsays Mr. Proulx.

As with whales, the results of his research prove that noise pollution affects fish just as much. Sensitive species tend to avoid acoustically high placesconcludes the researcher.

View of a busy highway.

The increase in the car fleet and the number of roads in recent decades has led to a constant increase in noise.Photo: TurnedNews.com

The omnipresence of noise

If the noise is very present underwater, on land, it is everywhere. The industrial world is getting louder and louder, says Professor Jesse Barber of Idaho State University in Boise. The researcher conducted one of the first North American research studies specifically on the impact of noise on terrestrial wildlife. He became interested in birds because Idaho is located in the middle of a migration corridor along the Rocky Mountains between Canada and Mexico.

In this study, Jesse Barber wanted to separate all the impacts of human activities on birds. There is chemical pollution, it is known. We also know that light pollution affects birds. And there is pollution and collisions with vehicles on busy roads. But here we want to know what is the impact caused by noise alone, because it is a ubiquitous pollutant in the landscape.

Jesse Barber with a sound level meter.

Boise State University researcher Jesse Barber is interested in the impact of noise on migratory birds.Photo: TurnedNews.com

A road ghost

The researcher therefore wanted to determine how the noise of a busy road affected the birds. He then developed a project called the ghost road.km/h with a very high quality microphone. We then played these audio files over 30speakers we attached to trees”,”text”:”We recorded cars driving at around 70km/h with a very high quality microphone. We then played these audio files on 30 speakers that we attached to the trees”}}’>We recorded cars driving at around 70 km/h with a very high quality microphone. We then played these audio files on 30 speakers that we attached to trees, explains Jesse Barber. This phantom road created the same effect as a road on the soundscape of a natural area.

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After several months of experiments, the result is conclusive: the noise coming from these loudspeakers greatly affects the birds.% of birds left the sites and some species fled the area altogether when we turned on the speakers.”,”text”:”We found that 30% of birds left the sites and some species literally fled the area when we turned on the speakers.”}}’>We found that 30% of the birds left the sites and some species fled the area altogether when we turned on the speakers.

The researcher also notes that the birds that remained did not gain weight. In other words, their physical condition has not improved. This is a real problem for migratory birds who have a long journey ahead of them.

A Piranga on a branch.

The Red-headed Piranga is one of the birds studied by Jesse Barber’s team.Photo: Shutterstock

For Jesse Barber, these results are worrying, because for decades, the noise has been constantly increasing. To support his point, the researcher cites the demographic evolution of recent decades in the United States. Between 1970 and today, the American population has increased by more than a third. This therefore implies a major increase in the number of kilometers traveled by plane and vehicle, and therefore a substantial increase in noise everywhere, including in natural areas, including national parks.continues Mr. Barber.

We have lost our ability to listen to nature without the interference of all that noise. »

A quote from Matthew Mikkelsen
General view of the Parc des Prairies.

Grasslands National Park protects one of the last natural grasslands in Canada.Photo: TurnedNews.com / Benoît Livernoche

Looking for quiet places

Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan is unique for its large natural plains, a rarity in North America. In this park, among other things, you can find herds of bison and the only colony of prairie dogs in Canada. It is an inspiring place for Matthew Mikkelsen, a specialist in acoustic ecology. Before the arrival of agriculture, much of the continent was covered with what is seen heresays Matthew Mikkelsen.

Weather permitting, here you can hear what is happening for miles around. There are only a few of us in the area and all you hear is the rustling of the grass. No highway, no tourists!says Mikkelsen.

Three bison in the prairie.

In Grasslands National Park, you can see bison.Photo: Benoit Livernoche

Matthew Mikkelsen is part of the Quiet Parks Foundation. Inspired by dark sky reserves, this organization’s mission is to encourage the establishment of reserves of silence. So he visits Grasslands National Park to analyze how quiet the place is. It’s far from quiet here. There is the howling of coyotes, the chirping of birds. There is all this noise that nature makes and that is part of the decor. The ecosystem has evolved over millions of years and every sound has found its perfect placesays Matthew Mikkelsen.

The ecologist cites the example of the ruffed grouse, which sings at a low frequency. The other songbirds have adopted a higher frequency. Insects then communicate on an even higher level. It all evolved in balance to create this particular soundscape.

Noises like airplanes or motor home generators have no place here. They did not evolve with this ecosystem. »

A quote from Matthew Mikkelsen, acoustic ecologist
Matthew Mikkelsen and Jonathan Kawchuk with recording equipment

Matthew Mikkelsen and Jonathan Kawchuk are acoustics ecologists. They record ambient sound.Photo: TurnedNews.com / Benoît Livernoche

To arrive at determining the level of silence of the Parc des Prairies, the team listens to and records the ambient sound here, thanks to very sensitive microphones. We then calculate the duration of a noiseless interval, i.e. the period of silence between the passage of two planes or two cars, for examplesays Matthew Mikkelsen. When we get a noise-free interval of 15 minutes or more, we can call this place exceptional.

The remoteness of Grasslands National Park from the main roads, its location outside the major air corridors and above all the silence that reigns there make the experience conclusive. When we stop and take the time to listen to this nature, everything seems to go without saying, everything seems in its place. I think it is essential that everyone can live this experiencebelieves Mr. Mikkelsen.

Three prairie dogs.

Grasslands National Park has the only colony of prairie dogs in Canada.Photo: Benoit Livernoche

Noise, a societal choice?

Behind the idea of ​​these silent reserves and all the research on noise, there is a desire to make decision-makers, citizens or modern campers aware of the fact that noise is a nuisance for us, but also for all other living beings. Although it is invisible, it is another pollution.

If your soil is contaminated, your water probably is too. If your water is polluted, your air certainly is too. And if you have noise pollution, you surely have all other pollution. »

A quote from Matthew Mikkelsen

Researcher Raphaël Proulx believes that everything is a societal choice. Technologies that reduce noise existsays the researcher, who cites the installation of acoustic barriers as an example. But doing it on a large scale is expensive, if not impossible, and therefore adds to the long list of priorities for improving our quality of life.

In 2020, the UQTR researcher participated in a global data collection effort called Silent cities. Around the world, researchers have been recording ambient sound in cities to learn how pandemic-related lockdowns and reduced human activity have reduced the amount of noise. Despite the fact that even today the official data of this project has not yet been published, numerous anecdotal observations have proven a significant reduction in noise. But since then, the resumption of activities has meant a return to normal.

In conclusion, Jesse Barber believes that noise pollution must be considered in relation to everything that happens on this planet. We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. We are losing valuable habitat at a staggering rate. We alter our atmosphere to the point of causing climate change that weakens our societies, says the biologist. For him, it is obvious that all the noise is linked to industrialization and especially to our dependence on fossil fuels.

When we really tackle climate change, we will partially solve the noise problem. »

A quote from Jesse Barber, biologist, Boise State University
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