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This Music Was Composed by Climate Change

Dying forests make magnificently melancholy listening

Alaska's yellow-cedar forests are slowly dying as climate change takes root. (J Brew (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

Nature is filled with beautifully mysterious sound. From the bow shock of a spacecraft slamming into Jupiter’s atmosphere to bat echolocation and underwater volcanoes, the wonders of science can be as aural as they are intellectual. But sometimes, scientific sound can be just plain sad, as Brian Kahn reports for Climate Central.

Lauren Oakes was a Stanford Ph.D student when she began to specialize in measuring climate change in the yellow cedar forests of far-off Alaska. As Kahn reports, she was inspired by the music of a fellow scientist and Stanford student, Nik Sawe, who uses technology to turn brain data from seizures into sonic landscapes.

He was on the hunt for other kinds of data to turn into music, so Oakes volunteered hers. Over years of research, Oakes and her colleagues have tracked how climate change is affecting the Alaskan rainforest. As the atmosphere warms, the roots of yellow cedar trees in Alaska are exposed and become more vulnerable to the cold. As the roots freeze, the trees die and their territory is overrun by invasive western hemlock. It’s called yellow-cedar decline, and it’s dramatically changing the landscape of Alaska and nearby British Columbia.

Sawe’s work is called data sonification—the act of taking scientific data and turning it into sound. Scientists have figured out ways to turn everything from seismic activity to solar wind into sound, but not all types of data make great music.

The sound of Oakes’ cedar trees, though, did—her work featured data about five common conifer species at different points in time. As Outside Magazine’s Brad Rassler explains, Sawe set up his software using the parameters of Oakes’ data. Forty-eight tree plots in the huge area measured by Oakes became a measure of music, the number of trees within each plot became notes in the measure. The height of each tree determined the pitch of the note, and each dead tree became a dropped note in the measure. Other characteristics of each tree informed the composition, Rassler reports, from the diameter of its trunk (the force with which a note was played) to the species of tree (the instrument that played each note).

The result is a piece of art that both Oakes and Sawe hope helps change the way people think about climate change. It’s a different tact than the one taken by, say, biologists who record changes in the sonosphere of changing ecosystems or urban planners intent on recording city soundscapes before they disappear forever. In those cases, sound is captured from landscapes themselves; in the case of Oakes and Sawe, it’s generated by ecology as it morphs and changes.

The result is strangely beautiful, but that beauty comes at the cost of forests that play a vital ecological role for the plants, animals and even bacteria that surround them. Climate change may sound pretty, but the reality is anything but—and perhaps the power of sound can one day save the very forests that make such melancholy music.

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