The iPhone reads 8:52 p.m. Exactly 30 minutes after sunset.
“It’s time to start our measurements,” Romi Kondo says.
And so she embarks on the trail alongside Nabeel Elabdeia. They’re both rising seniors at Colorado College, and here at Pulpit Rock Park they’re continuing their summerlong mission to monitor sounds around Colorado Springs’ natural places.
For two months, they’ve zip tied recorders to trees and posts, collecting them later to listen to minute intervals captured during different times of day. They document in spreadsheets: the morning chorus of birds, the evening chatter of bugs, the wind between branches, the occasional shuffle of a critter, and, all the while, the rumble of engines from sky and land.
“Lots of cars,” Elabdeia says. “Cars everywhere.”
And airplanes. “Once they start in the minute,” Kondo says, “they’re usually there the entire minute.”
Thus, the examination so far suggests these natural places are less than natural.
This includes Pulpit Rock, like a throne perched here in the shrubby hills beside Interstate 25. Early cartographers depicted it amid the dusty frontier, tumbleweeds unobstructed on every side. Now Kondo and Elabdeia start under power lines, passing a massive apartment complex, the light posts from that parking lot combining with those from the nearby shopping center of Costco, Lowe’s, Kohl’s and restaurants, the artificial light blotting out the stars.
The din of the highway dominates.
“Here we are in one of these big, beautiful areas of Colorado Springs we’re really fortunate to have,” says Steve Taylor, the CC research associate leading the students, “and we’re just inundated with this noise.”
As is being found by emerging science in Colorado and beyond.
From the depths of the oceans to the most remote reaches of the mountains, an invisible invader grows stronger in our wild sanctuaries. Researchers define noise pollution as any clamor caused by man.
Colorado State University has been at the forefront, having formed the Sound and Light Ecology Team with the National Park Service. The NPS established the partnership in 2007 amid rising complaints of ruckus, and the team since has used improved technology and built on previous surveys to identify the issue, to put a face to the invader.
Jacob Job is a leading scientist on the team, every year planting recorders at several preserves — from volcanoes of Hawaii, to swamps of the South, to woods of the Midwest, to glaciated valleys and peaks of the West. He heads the university’s Listening Lab, which he says has amassed more than a million hours of audio.
“If you think about national parks in other countries, we’re pretty unique in that we have a huge budget for infrastructure,” Job says. “It really encourages people to come out and visit the park, so (the NPS) has done a really good job of doing that. But at the same time, everybody wants to drive their cars into the parks, and that does come at a cost for sure.”
He’s found traffic to be but one major force polluting soundscapes.
“Machines produce so much noise and produce them in such low frequencies, and those deep, bass notes travel so far. You can have oil and gas wells and aircrafts away from the boundaries of the park, but still that noise is gonna bleed in. Unfortunately, noise pollution doesn’t know boundaries.”
As was illustrated by a map in what was considered a groundbreaking study in the field two years ago. Using recordings from 492 protected sites and predictive computer analytics, CSU and NPS researchers showed the United States’ conservation strongholds littered with noise, represented by blobs of color. It seemed the 1972 Noise Control Act had been forgotten, as if regulation had bowed to development.
The study determined that noise pollution doubled sound in about two-thirds of those lands and accounted for a tenfold increase in 21% of them.
“Think about a listening area as a bubble,” says Rachel Buxton, the study’s lead author putting the data in perspective. “You can hear, let’s say, for 100 meters in every direction. If there’s noise (pollution) present, that shrinks the area at which you can hear (natural) sound. So a doubling of sound energy is shrinking your area by half. It’s an alarming level of noise, and that’s present in about two-thirds of our parks.”
A tenfold increase would mean a 100-meter listening area shriveled to 10 meters. And that might mean the difference of hearing a waterfall ahead or a woodpecker unseen — some source of the natural symphony. For animals, Buxton says, that might mean the difference between life and death.
Think of birds listening to their mates’ calls, she says. Think of them unable to hear each other. Or think of a fox, listening for a mouse under the snow, “listening for a really faint sound,” she says. “It could mean that fox can’t catch the mouse.” All the same, a predator might benefit from noise; the prey caught unsuspecting.
Indeed, noise pollution can alter the balance of whole ecosystems, researchers say. A 2012 study by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center found that some plants do better in noisy environments — those benefiting from hummingbird pollination, for example, as hummingbird enemies, the nest-wrecking Western scrub jay, tend to avoid noise. Meanwhile, the study found cacophony threatening to piñon pine, for noise scares away the creatures that otherwise would spread those seeds.
And noise impacts to life in the sea are well-known. Last year, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan were the latest to publish a report on how “the roar of motors, the ping of military SONAR and the bangs and blasts from offshore development” wreak havoc on whales, dolphins and fish.
But “easier for the public to digest is the detrimental effect on human health,” Job says. People in noisy environments experience higher blood pressure and other physical, cognitive and emotional setbacks, several studies show. Several more have found the sounds of nature to be restorative.
And if natural sound was more appreciated, perhaps we’d see more action against noise pollution, Job says. Still, he’s seen progress across the National Park Service. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to reroute air traffic above Trail Ridge Road — one example of an effort to create a confined “noise corridor.”
“Quiet zones” can be established, shuttles can be enforced, helicopter tours can be limited, and parks can use several other cost-effective means, Buxton says. “The encouraging thing about working on noise pollution is, we do have solutions.”
But solutions might be trickier in cities, where parks and open spaces were found to be the most under siege in Buxton’s research from a couple of years ago. Thanks to Colorado College’s survey, Colorado Springs’ parks department is getting its first glimpse into soundscapes. Along with Pulpit Rock, students also are recording Garden of the Gods and Jimmy Camp Creek out east.
“It’s brand-new to us,” says the department’s Scott Abbott, who was pleased to permit the study. “We want to make sure we’re collecting all necessary data to help us make future management decisions. What that is remains to be figured out.”
It starts with listening, Job says, noticing the bugs, the birds, the leaves, the water. “And as you start to do that, you’ll start to hear the noise pollution. And eventually, you won’t be able to unhear it.”
Such is the burden of CC’s sound seekers.
“A motorcycle drives by, and it’s really irritating now,” Kondo says.
“Loud engines,” Elabdeia says. “It almost feels damaging to my ears.”
Now, here at Pulpit Rock, their recorder picks up a wild frequency. Bats have been another focus this summer, and they stop to watch one fly under the moon’s silvery glow.
Soon, the trail ends, and they suddenly find themselves in a neighborhood. They roam the streets in search of the trail back into the open space, and it’s all rather disorienting for a moment. Then they’re back on the trail. And they know they’re on the return route, as the sound of the highway is getting louder.