There’s a 20-minute audio clip on the music-sharing portal SoundCloud, uploaded by Yale Environment 360, an online magazine published by the Yale School of the Environment, US. It has no human voices. No sound of traffic or any other anthropogenic noise. You only hear the natural sounds of the Zabalo river in Ecuador—a faint pattern of raindrops, birds chirping and cicadas humming along.
If you close your eyes and hear the clip over and over again, there’s every chance you will be transported to the Ecuadorian Amazon area, which was certified as the world’s first wilderness quiet park two years ago by Quiet Parks International (QPI), an international non-profit that is working to identify and preserve endangered locations on the planet as acoustically pristine places become increasingly scarce. A natural “quiet” place is where you can listen to nature without noise pollution.
“Quiet” conservation is not restricted to just the wilderness. On World Environment Day last year, QPI also certified Yangmingshan National Park in Taiwan as the world’s first urban quiet park. More such urban quiet parks are up for contention in London, Stockholm and New York, says Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and co-founder of QPI.
“You can reduce noise pollution, cut it in half, but still not have any quiet. It is an essential quality of life not just for humans, but the wildlife too,” Hempton explains during a video interview from just outside the Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, US. “They need quiet to communicate. They don’t have Zoom or the workarounds. They are stuck in the shared acoustic environment, where noise pollution has just skyrocketed in the last 100 years.”
For almost four decades, Hempton has been recording rare natural sounds across the globe. When the natural soundscape at the Olympic National Park in his immediate vicinity faced the human-made noises of passing passenger aircraft, he set up One Square Inch of Silence as an independent research project in 2005. More than 13 years later, One Square Inch of Silence evolved into QPI.
“Look at India. Shaanti (which roughly translates to peace and quiet) is part of our culture. It’s ingrained in us. But having said that, where do you experience quiet in India? It’s noisy. That’s the challenge,” says Vikram Chauhan, president and co-founder of QPI. Mumbai-based Chauhan faced this challenge when he literally went hunting for a quiet space in the city’s urban parks. “I was so dejected,” he recalls. “The first thing you want to experience in a quiet park is peace. That doesn’t mean just the lack of outside noise,” he explains.
That’s what the acoustic experts at QPI—which includes environmentalists, social scientists and musicologists—also look for. The organisation receives nominations for potential quiet parks or places from people who have visited these locations or are keen on preserving the “quiet” in those areas. A recent nomination, for instance, was the Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
QPI also populates its own candidate list of locations based on research that extends from recording decibel levels and examining the location’s land surface area, to ensuring it is not illuminated by artificial lights and does not fall close to any major transportation corridors. The list also looks at designated natural areas—biosphere reserves, national parks and Unesco World Heritage sites. Once a location is certified, it is reviewed every three-five years to make sure it is still “quiet”.
As Hempton explains, noise pollution is no longer just an annoyance. Scientific research points to the fact that extended exposure to noise pollution can have a direct impact on health. In 2011, a World Health Organization report on the burden of disease from environmental noise had warned that traffic-related noise alone accounted for over one million healthy years of life lost annually to ill-health, disability or early death in western Europe.
Human-made noise is also causing rampant change beneath the surface. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Victoria in Canada published a paper in the journal Science, explaining how increased noise from shipping traffic, fishing vessels and underwater exploration had altered the ocean soundscape.
Saving quiet places, Hempton adds, would bring answers to this and other global problems. “When we save quiet places, we also save biodiversity, healthy habitats, take carbon out of the atmosphere, produce oxygen, and reduce global warming.”
It’s with these goals in mind that QPI has so far identified more than 250 potential locations around the world that could be certified as “quiet”, including three national parks in India. The covid-19 pandemic has had its share of impact, as travel restrictions mean there is little scope for on-ground research and sound surveys. But Hempton is encouraged by the fact that the pandemic made some people experience “quiet” for the very first time. In December 2020, a study by researchers at the University of Vermont, US, found covid-19 had changed people’s relationship with nature, with many Americans visiting natural parks for the first time during the early months of the pandemic.
“Quiet is for everyone,” Hempton says. “It is a basic human right. The goal is to make it a daily choice for people, not just a once in a lifetime experience.”