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A global network for understanding natural sounds

Posted: September 6, 2012 - 4:30pm
Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Workshop participants at the inaugural meeting of the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Aldo Leopold's shack is in the background.
Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Workshop participants at the inaugural meeting of the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Aldo Leopold's shack is in the background.

What do you get when you put 10 ecologists and 10 musicians in one room? No, it is not another bad joke from your Uncle Jerry. In fact, you get a conglomeration of talents and ideas coming together for a single purpose — understanding and preserving our planet’s soundscapes. In July, I was lucky enough to be one of those ecologists attending the first-ever workshop of the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network (GSSN) in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Now you are probably asking yourself, “What is a soundscape, what the heck is a Global Sustainable watchamacallit, and why Baraboo?”

A soundscape is composed of the human, biological, and geophysical sounds that emanate throughout a landscape. You experience the soundscape on a daily basis, whether it is the constant motorized hum of office computers and highway traffic, the whispering of wind and pitter-patter of rain, or beautiful eclectic songs of migratory birds. The soundscape surrounds us and defines us.

The development of the GSSN is funded by the National Science Foundation and is headed by Bryan Pijanowski from Purdue University. The GSSN consists of a group of scientists and musicians who have come together from all over the world to study human and animal interactions with the sounds in our environment, and to work together to preserve the last remaining “natural” soundscapes on Earth before human urbanization and mechanization change it forever.

We met in Baraboo to commemorate our undeniable connection to Aldo Leopold’s founding ethics on wilderness preservation. Leopold’s ethic was founded on our deep connection to the Land, how we interact with it, and how we influence its processes. As some of you may know, Baraboo is the site of Leopold’s shack where he wrote the ever popular Sand County Almanac, an influential book that serves as a cornerstone of the modern conservation movement.

As I stood in the shade of the large pine trees planted by Leopold, I was taken back to a simpler time when Aldo listened to the dawn chorus and meticulously noted the timing and duration of each species as it sang. I was awakened from this dream by the low droning hum of traffic five miles away on I-90/94.

During our two-day event, we were first given a keynote presentation by Bernie Krause, one of the founders of soundscape ecology. Bernie’s life-long experience traveling the globe and recording some of the most pristine soundscapes in the world and, in some cases, their subsequent degradation, has in time brought a profound recognition to the importance of soundscape preservation.

Krause emphasized his Acoustic Niche Hypothesis which proposes that species within a given geographic region fill a specific frequency of sound in the soundscape much like instruments in an orchestra. Animals rely heavily on sound for communication and the detection of predators and environmental change. Now, more than ever before, the environmental changes are a result of human mechanical and industrial activity. Whether it is the building of a road or global climate change, humans are altering the soundscape and changing the arrangement of this animal orchestra.

Stuart Gage, an emeritus professor at Michigan State University and another founder of soundscape ecology, discussed how the soundscape is the heartbeat of the landscape. Just like a doctor listens to the heartbeat of a person to determine their health, the same can be said for monitoring the soundscape. It is this approach to ecology that changes the way we see, or rather listen, to our world.

On a completely different aspect of soundscape ecology, musicians in the GSSN are developing listening exercises and musical compositions to incorporate the various characteristics of the soundscape into the human experience.

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is one of five focal ecosystems chosen by the GSSN to explore the unique contrast between pristine and disturbed soundscapes. The Kenai Refuge is the most accessible refuge in Alaska in one of the fastest growing areas. The other network nodes are in Wisconsin, Arizona, Italy and Borneo.

As trivial as it may sound, ask yourself, when was the last time you hiked a trail on the Refuge or elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula without hearing an airplane or road traffic? These sounds of human progress not only affect natural ecosystems but alter our wilderness experience. Because of this, I have been working with the Refuge since 2010 to model the spatial distribution of human-made noise during winter, in part to identify disturbed and undisturbed areas for the benefit of both wildlife and human enjoyment.

In the end, the whole point of getting outdoors is getting away from it all, including the noise that represents the bustle of everyday life. The GSSN is a first step towards recognizing the silence and solitude humans seek when exploring the last of our wild areas.

Tim Mullet is a doctoral student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks working with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on a study of the ecological effects of snowmachines. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge and Tim’s soundscape project at http://real.msu.edu/projects/one_proj.php?proj=knwx.

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