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Obliterating the sound of silence

We are only beginning to understand how our noise and light affects other creatures

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/29/22

One of the things that science is beginning to slowly teach us humans is the way in which we are impacting the lives of other species and the very environment in ways most of us would never imagine. …

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Obliterating the sound of silence

We are only beginning to understand how our noise and light affects other creatures


One of the things that science is beginning to slowly teach us humans is the way in which we are impacting the lives of other species and the very environment in ways most of us would never imagine. Take, for example, a study of scrub jays in New Mexico. Like most jays, scrub jays cache food for the winter and in much of New Mexico that means they stash lots of seeds from the pinyon pine. On average, a single jay will stash about 4,000 seeds annually, and those they forget about will typically grow into the next generation of pinyon pine, which are short, spreading pine that comprise a critical foundation for that near-desert ecosystem.
But researchers found that in areas near oil and gas rigs, where the sounds of those rigs were a constant presence, scrub jays spent less time and buried fewer pine seeds. In fact, they buried only about a quarter as many pinyon pine seeds as in quieter places. That means fewer pinyon pines, the kind of change to an ecosystem that can have any number of destabilizing effects.
It is just one of a myriad of ways that humans are affecting the natural environment without even realizing it.
Most of us probably have some awareness of the concept of habitat. In the usual telling, it’s an assemblage of plants and animals that provide for the life needs of any particular species. But as we’ve learned more in recent years, we’ve come to understand that the impact that humans are having on species goes well beyond the destruction or fragmentation of such habitat. It turns out that other things, like the noise and light that seem to go hand-in-hand with the presence of humans, are having significant impacts as well.
It’s a point made eloquently in The Atlantic this month, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ed Yong, whose most recent book explores the different ways that animals perceive the world around them. Because we’re human, and therefore arrogant about our place in the world, it’s easy for us to forget that we’ve become the 900-pound gorillas here on Planet Earth, stomping around in ever growing numbers and with ever greater impact on, well, everything.
Because we don’t see well in the dark, we see darkness as something to be avoided, which means we light up our environment to an astonishing degree. We’ve only recently begun to pay attention to light pollution, yet it’s mostly in the context of how it affects our lives— as in we can’t see the northern lights or the Milky Way in most of the country.
Yet all that light and sound that we humans generate on a nearly constant basis has a profound impact on many species, notes Yong. It impacts their ability to find food, to find a mate, avoid predators, or to find their way during migration. There are creatures, like bats, owls, and night-flying moths, that have adapted to darkness, and their lives are impacted by the encroachment of our lights. And many species rely on calls, songs, and even vibrations to communicate, and that becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible, as the sounds of human activity spread to nearly every corner of the globe.
“We have distracted them from what they actually need to sense, drowned out the cues they depend upon, and lured them into sensory traps. All of this is capable of doing catastrophic damage,” Yong writes.
As the human population has grown and we’ve spread our sensory pollution to the far-flung reaches of the planet, those places truly free from the light and sound that makes up the world of human activities are increasingly rare.
As I read Jong’s story, I couldn’t help but make some connections locally. Just last week, I attended a meeting at Eagles Nest Township to report on local concerns about the designation of a new ATV trail. It appeared residents were upset about the noise and disruption a steady stream of ATVs could have on their neighborhoods. They, of course, had the ability to come and speak up for their interests. But as this winding network of ATV trails, estimated to eventually reach 1,000 miles here in northeastern Minnesota alone, brings noise to many places along those routes where humans rarely ventured in the past, how will it impact the wildlife along the way? That’s a question that isn’t asked, even in those instances when environmental review is undertaken for a project.
And I wonder about the impact on wildlife from major sources of light pollution, which in our area would include Fortune Bay Resort Casino. The lighting from that operation now fills the night sky across much of Lake Vermilion and has virtually ended true night on the Vermilion Reservation. We know how that impacts our view of the night sky, but how does it impact many other creatures that require the darkness? We don’t really know, because these are questions that largely remain unexplored.
We tend to view the impacts of noise and light pollution only in the sense of how they affect us. Yet, as Yong notes, what we might find acceptable or insignificant can be devastating to other species. “Every animal is enclosed within its own sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world,” he writes. To a wood tick, the world is sensed in terms of body heat or the touch of hair. “It doesn’t care about other stimuli and probably doesn’t even know that they exist.”
Jong uses a word, “umwelt” coined in 1909 by a German zoologist, to describe these sensory bubbles. Each umwelt, including our own, is very limited, even though it doesn’t seem that way to us who live within it. “Our umwelt is all we know and, and so we can easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion that every creature shares,” he writes.
Yet, slowly, humans are perhaps the one species here on Earth that is beginning to understand how other organisms perceive the world. And that could, if we so desired, give us the ability to take steps to reduce our many and myriad intrusions into the worlds of other creatures.
And there are steps that can be taken. For example, converting the bright white light produced by sodium bulbs, which are commonly used in parking lots, with red bulbs, the impact to the night sky and those creatures that depend on darkness is significantly reduced— yet we humans can still see what we need to see just fine.
If I was an ATV manufacturer, I’d be looking for ways to reduce the sound footprint of the machines I produce for market. Even if it’s just to head off the growing complaints from residents near heavily trafficked trails, there’s the related benefit of reducing the noise pollution affecting the wildlife that many riders hope to see when they’re out on the trail.
While there are many environmental issues that are complicated and costly to address, the issues of sensory pollution doesn’t have to be, since there are ways we can help to alleviate the harm. It just requires us to step outside our sensory bubbles and try to understand the world from the perspectives of our fellow creatures.


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