In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns prevented millions of people around the world from venturing beyond their homes, scientists noticed a measurable phenomenon. The world was calm.
“Talk about a silver lining. COVID has arrived and given us its gift of global calm for a substantial period of time,” said Gordon Hempton, a sound recorder and acoustic ecologist who has devoted more than three decades of his life to the idea of natural calm. “So quiet, such a reduction in human noise pollution, that seismologists were even able to listen to the earth in greater detail than ever before. Even ordinary people noticed the change.
Hempton is the co-founder of Quiet Parks International (QPI), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of natural quiet (the term for ambient sound without human-made intrusions) as a dwindling resource. fast in the modern world. Hempton’s work with QPI came from his personal experience on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
One day in the mid-1990s, Hempton was hiking in the Hoh Rainforest in the heart of Olympic National Park, monitoring and recording sound levels from the muted understory of the forest. Several miles further, he found what he believed to be one of the quietest places in the country. He placed a small red rock on a nearby tree trunk, calling it “One Square Inch of Silence (OSI)”, and embarked on an effort to make Olympic Park the nation’s first quiet park. He figured that if one square centimeter of space could be preserved for natural sound, the impact would radiate for miles.
Unfortunately, despite decades of advocacy work, little progress has been made on the legislative front, but QPI has begun to recognize quiet places on its own. In 2019, following extensive data collection, QPI determined that the Zabalo River in Ecuador met the gold standard for a Wilderness Quiet Park award.
In July, QPI awarded its second Wilderness Quiet Park designation to Glacier National Park (GNP). The award “reinforces the park’s natural sound educational efforts to distinguish natural soundscape from noise, and the importance of the opportunity for visitors to experience this.”
“As the first quiet wilderness park in North America, the hope is that one person can, on an average day, have a quiet experience,” Hempton said. “What does that mean? It’s a feeling. An overriding feeling of calm, wonder, discovery and love.
Glacier was nominated for the award by Mary T. McClelland, a local Glacier natural resource advocate and founder of Friends for a Quiet! Glacier Coalition, a grassroots group dedicated to reducing noise from human-made travel in the park, particularly from air traffic.
“Glacier’s peace and quiet have been cited among the features that made it the world’s first international peace park,” McClelland said. “I grew up in Glacier and first heard the natural sounds of the park as a kid. Being a voice for the park and nature sounds was a stint that I took on from many before me.
McClelland’s father was a National Park Service (NPS) employee who worked at Glacier for decades. In a memoir, he wrote of the changes he has observed over the years, saying that “the natural calm and solitude that characterized BNP when we first moved there in 1965 disappeared, certainly during the summer months This loss elicits a type of mourning for the lost possibility of quiet experiences.
While McClelland acknowledges the changes that come with increased visitation, she still believes Glacier has retained its unique wilderness character, in part because of the work park staff have done to preserve its natural resources.
“To anyone who says it’s not quiet anymore, I say it’s up to us to do our part,” McClelland said. “This award specifically names people in the park who have worked for decades to preserve the park’s unique character and natural soundscape.”
These people include Mary Riddle, recently retired chief environmental planning and compliance officer; Richard Menicke, geographer and geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator in the park’s Science and Resource Management Division; Brad Blickhan, the park’s Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River Coordinator; Deputy Superintendent Pete Webster; and former superintendent Jeff Mow.
Both the GNP and the NPS state on their websites the importance of soundscape management, adding that “any significant degradation of the natural soundscape deprives park visitors of the opportunity to connect and appreciate the natural scene”.
Even so, GNP officials are firm in pointing out that they did not solicit QPI’s award, nor officially endorse the organization, deferring to McClelland’s work as a local advocate.
Karen Trevino, NPS Division Manager of Natural Sound and Night Sky, said that while the QPI award is “a good thing for sure, I think it’s more of an accomplishment for the person who nominated Glacier and for Quiet Parks International – especially since it’s not really related to management actions.
The NPS’s approach to preserving soundscapes contrasts with its proactive measures to protect the stunning visual elements of its locations, including light pollution. Glacier officials not only sought the park’s newly created status as an International Dark Sky Park, but they also celebrated the designation.
What complicates soundscape management, however, is the jurisdictional overlap between the landscape of Glacier National Park and the skies above. While an NPS unit might put policies in place to mitigate human-made sound intrusion, those policies would only apply at ground level. Meanwhile, the most severe man-made noise intrusions come from jet planes and tourist helicopters, all managed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Indeed, it was the aerial intrusions that started Hempton on his Olympic advocacy path.
“The biggest complaint I received when talking about preserving calm at Olympic was ‘why preserve something that will never be in danger?'” Hempton said. to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has more than doubled, and the U.S. Naval Base on nearby Whidbey Island has changed the training route for some fighter jets, sending them over the national park. noise-free interval at OSI decreased from 5-6 hours to less than 15 minutes without intrusion.
No matter where you are in the world, if you listen long enough, you’ll hear a jet pass overhead. Even in the heart of the Amazon, Nick McMahan, a soundman at QPI recorded aerial intrusions.
As a field logger, McMahan spent a week at Glacier last fall collecting data along the shores of Kintla Lake, one of the most remote access points in the park’s northwest corner.
The location was chosen on the advice of McClelland, as well as the limited data that exists on Glacier soundscapes.
A 2004 study recorded noise levels at nine locations around the park, including Bowman Lake in the North Fork area. Overall, Bowman’s recording station showed the lowest ambient sound levels and the longest intervals between man-made noises.
Lake Kintla, located seven miles north of Bowman, is given an extra degree of remoteness and as such seemed like the perfect testing location.
For several days, McMahan recorded a natural noise level of around 30 decibels, roughly equivalent to a whisper. However, the recording hours were by no means calm – wind, lakeside waves and the chirping of birds regularly swelled the sound level meter, as did man-made sounds.
One day, McMahan identified planes flying overhead at 5:15 a.m., 9:02 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1:15 p.m., 4:12 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.
“Sometimes I was a little surprised or annoyed by the sounds of planes and vehicles. But compared to anywhere else, there were just these big periods of natural sounds,” McMahan said. “Until you hear it, it’s hard to understand how special and rare it is.”
Tara Carolin, director of the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center, said a person’s background greatly influences their acoustic experience.
“Relatively speaking, Glacier is currently a place where you can come and experience a more natural soundscape,” she said. “While the park seems louder than ever, especially in popular places, if you think about people who come from metropolitan areas, they see it differently than we do. They experience a calm and natural place everywhere.
Glacier’s nomination and subsequent award was the first of its kind in North America, but QPI is looking at several other locations across the country, including the US Prairie Reserve in Montana.
“Quiet Parks believes that when it comes to national parks and wilderness, we should not slip on the quality scale. The intent of wilderness is that we can truly experience nature at its most natural – and not just by our modern standards,” Hempton said. “In a quiet park you may hear the thunderous voice of a waterfall eight miles away. At dawn you will hear the buzzing of insect wings shaking off the dew before a flight. And we ask only that you can experience it for at least 15 minutes, reliably, once a day.
By Hempton’s estimate, there are only a dozen locations in the lower 48 that meet that standard, and QPI is looking to award two more locations this year.
For McClelland, the Glacier Prize is a milestone in her work and proves that it is possible to rally around a scarce natural resource.
“I hope that if people know the park has received the award, they will think differently about their visiting experience and become more aware of their contribution to calm or remoteness,” she said. “They might wonder what they’ll hear if they just sit still. Many people come to Glacier and all of our national parks for this experience and we should never give up trying to recognize its value.