Some Peace and Quiet: More Than a Fantasy

It feels like New York City is the capital of noise. Car horns are constantly blaring, trying to outdo the sirens that periodically pierce the air. The apartment next to you is reverberating music. The bar down the street expels drunk people hooting and hollering into the wee hours of the morning. It can be overwhelming and sometimes all you want is some peace and quiet. You might retreat to a park or perhaps use your flight miles to escape to a remote beach somewhere in the sun. More and more, however, these quiet places are becoming harder to find as noise pollution spreads through the air, permeating even the most out-of-the-way places. That’s exactly why Gordon Hempton, an Emmy award-winning sound tracker, has taken up the mission of preserving the silence of the world. 

Gordon Hempton records the sounds of the Earth. His recordings appear in Microsoft, the Smithsonian Institute, Youtube, and National Geographic pieces. Chances are if you’ve watched a good number of nature videos, you’ve probably heard one of Hempton’s recordings. And if you haven’t, you really should check them out because they are some of the most soothing sounds imaginable. 


Photo from Outside Magazine 

In 2005, Gordon Hempton declared that he had found the quietest place on Earth in a National Park in Washington. He laid a red rock in the depths of Hoh Rain Forest and, perhaps unknowingly, laid the foundation for a monument to silence. This location became the site of One Square Inch for Silence, an independent research project that hopes to inspire people to truly listen to their environment in the silence that nature allows for, and hundreds make the trek to visit this almost sacred spot. In the words of Hempton, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.” 

The project that Hempton is undertaking is proving to be one of the utmost importance. Noise pollution, categorized as industrial or non-industrial, has been shown to have significant impacts on the health of an ecosystem. This type of pollution, beyond leading to a deterioration of hearing, has also been linked to increased anxiety and detrimental to mental health, like people who live near airports being jumpier than the average person. It disrupts the ability to concentrate on things, reduces ocular health, and impacts sleep patterns, as well as causing ‘digestive spasms’ that interrupts one’s digestive system. 


Gordon Hempton – Photo from TreeHugger

Noise pollution has reached such a level that the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have made plans to invest $31 million dollars as part of a 2019 Airport Improvement Plan totaling $3.18 billion dollars. Other airport residents have successfully taken legal action to protect against noise pollution. 

And humans are not the only ones affected. Marine life is — especially those that use echolocation like the humpback whale, the Atlantic-spotted dolphin, the gray seal — severely impacted by the sounds of boats and coastal cities. Sound is used to signal food, danger, a suitable mate, and much more to marine communities and is integral to the survival of everything from whales to sea urchins. Governments in the European Union have already begun trying to remedy this problem and have presented a plan to ‘conserve ocean health’ with human noise reduction included. To understand more of what this marine noise pollution sounds like and the effects it has on marine ecosystems, check out this podcast

Gradually, scientists across the world are taking up the challenge of preserving silence. This National Simplicity Day, we challenge you to take a step back and listen too. Whether you’re on the grass of a park or in the cubicle of your office, close your eyes for a moment, plug your headphones in, and let the natural sounds of Cricket Thunder or Pipestone Canyon settle in your bones. 

Header Image by Shawn Parkin

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!