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Are There Any Places on Earth Left Untouched by Noise Pollution?

In this Generation Anthropocene podcast, an acoustic ecologist tours the planet in search of pristine soundscapes

A chance thunderstorm was the inspiration for Gordon Hempton's career as the Sound Tracker. (Clint Spencer/iStock)
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Listen up, because you never know when a sound will change your life.

In this podcast episode from Generation Anthropocene, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton shares the story of how he became the Sound Tracker, an unorthodox career choice that has seen him circle the globe three times over in pursuit of the planet's last pristine soundscapes.

As Hempton tells it, he was driving from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin to take up graduate studies in plant pathology. Somewhere along the way, he pulled over to rest in a field, and what he heard pointed his life in a new direction.

"Hearing the thunder define the far reaches of the valley, I didn't even have to turn my head or do anything. I just laid on the ground and watched the storm develop and pass over me and drench me, and ... I guess you could say that was my baptism," Hempton says. "And when it was all over, I only had one question which was, how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before?"

Since then Hempton has made recordings in rainforests, grasslands, mountaintops and even under the sea trying to capture what he calls the solar-powered jukebox that is planet Earth. You can hear some of his favorite audio clips, as well as the stories behind them, in the full episode:

As with the kinds of pollution we can see, smell and taste, Hempton worries that many human-caused noises are negatively affecting the environment around us, drowning out the subtle aural cues that all animals use to navigate the world.

"Sound is information, information that could be very relevant to your survival," he says. "Whether it's to find food, prosperity, or to avoid predation, it's so dangerous to unplug from this constant news and information flow that coverings of the ears, similar to eyelids, or covering of the eyes, never evolved. Not once do we find in the fossil record the presence of earlids."

So what kinds of life are most affected by noise pollution, and what can we do about it? Are there any places left on Earth where you can have a noise-free experience? Listen to the full episode to find out.

About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

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