Climate change threatens to disrupt the planet’s soundscape by pushing a million species to extinction and shifting others to areas where they’ve never lived before. Compared to dire climate consequences such as extreme weather, famine, and human conflict, the degradation of our planet’s normal soundscape seems fairly minor.
But many scientists and environmental advocates say that in that growing silence, we risk losing something unrecoverable — not only the melodies of nature and the symphony they create as a composite, but something that speaks to our awareness of the natural world around us. Even those who are not actively listening to the chorus of the natural world are still hearing it. Individual sounds can convey a sense of place, such as loon songs — which have been described as giving voice to “the wildness of the north” — or the chirping of cicadas, a staple of prairie life.
One meta-analysis found that exposure to sounds like running water and chirping insects were linked to significant improvements in key health metrics such as blood pressure and cognitive ability. In other words, “an environment that is filled with natural sounds feels safe and allows us to let our guard down.” Unwanted noise, by contrast — like the blaring of a car alarm — makes people feel like they’re in danger, increasing people’s “stress and annoyance.” And for all the sounds the Earth is losing each year, there certainly are many new and more grating ones to take their place.
The ocean is perhaps the place most violently impacted by elevated anthrophony, or sounds created by humans. Warmer water temperatures increase the speed at which sound travels, making for an even noisier ocean. Some underwater noises are loud enough to cause fatal damage to whales’ lungs and digestive systems, while softer ones can foil the search for food and mates.
The racket is bad for people, too. Some 86 percent of Americans live in urban areas, where the sounds of nature must compete with the din of human activity. Disadvantaged communities tend to be the most heavily impacted. The sounds of construction, industry, roadways, and more cause disproportionate damage to eardrums in low-income communities and communities of color.