Human noise pollution is everywhere, even in the national parks

In wintertime, the sounds of nature are so subtle they’re almost imperceptible: The whistling of the wind though craggy mountaintops, the whispering branches of the trees; the soft, delicate patter of an unseen animal’s paws across snowy ground.

“It’s a really quiet experience,” said Rachel Buxton, recalling a recent winter hike in southwest Colorado’s La Garita Wilderness. “You’re almost hearing your own heartbeat.”

But every 30 minutes, a jet flew overhead, shattering the fragile calm. “It’s shocking, right?” she said. “You’re in the middle of nowhere, yet you still can’t escape the sounds of humans.”

That’s the trouble with noise pollution, continued Buxton, an acoustic ecologist at Colorado State University: “It really doesn’t have any boundaries. There’s no way of holding it in.”

This problem pervades wilderness areas across the United States. Using a model based on sound measurements taken by the National Park Service, they found that human noises at least double the background sound levels at the majority of protected areas in the country. This noise pollution doesn’t just disrupt hikers; it can also frighten, distract or harm animals that inhabit the wilderness, setting off changes that cascade through the entire ecosystem.

“When we think about wilderness, we think about dark skies, going to see outstanding scenery,” said Megan McKenna, a scientist with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies division and a co-author on the report. “We really should think about soundscapes, too.”

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