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Humans Are Making Too Much Noise—Even in Protected Areas

Turns out that protecting natural areas doesn’t give animals much peace and quiet

This majestic Yellowstone elk would like you to shut up. (sobolevnrm - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Nature preserves are a noble idea—protected lands designed to give animals and plants safe sanctuaries in which to flourish. But new research suggests that there’s one thing these areas don’t give animals: peace and quiet. As The Guardian’s Damian Carrington reports, humans are negatively affecting wildlife with their racket, even in protected areas.

In a new study published in the journal Science, researchers share the noisy truth. Noise pollution is “pervasive” in protected areas in the U.S., they say—and the numbers bear out their contention. They studied more than 1.5 million hours of sound measurements from 492 protected sites in the United States and used machine learning algorithms to tease out which sounds were natural and which ones were human-caused.

Human noises doubled the sound levels in 63 percent of the areas studied. In 21 percent of the protected areas, humans made an even bigger impact, raising the sound levels tenfold or more. And 14 percent of areas with endangered species experienced that tenfold or more rise in sound thanks to humans.

That’s a big deal for wildlife, and not just because they find the hubbub annoying. Noise pollution can be dangerous for animals, affecting the way they mate, communicate, hunt, and navigate. Scientists have documented everything from changed vocal patterns in birds to fewer animals in noisy locations. Noise pollution can even hurt species like eels, making them slower to react in dangerous situations.

The researchers pinpointed the cause of all that extra sound to human factors like transportation, development and extraction activities like felling timber, mining or drilling for gas. Though natural areas do have less noise than, say, a busy city, it still makes its way into national parks and other protected zones—and the authors note that some areas aren’t shielded by sound laws.

One notable exception is the National Park Service, which actively manages its soundscapes. But U.S. protected area laws don’t require that kind of management, and the authors call that “a conspicuous missed opportunity.” Perhaps now that the true extent of human noisemaking is better known, protecting animals against the cacophony created by humans can become a matter of policy and not just principle.

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