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It’s time to break the silence on the importance of silence8 min read

August 3, 2021 6 min read


It’s time to break the silence on the importance of silence8 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If that sentence does not make sense to you, then leave everything you are doing right now and notice what all you can hear. Can you hear the buzz of your laptop? Or the persistent humming of the microwave in the kitchen? Can you hear the honking of cars creeping through your open windows? Or the exhaust of a scooter passing by? What else?
In a single moment, you are surrounded by massive auditory stimuli. What you never hear is silence…
That pin drop silence you used to hear about when you were still going to school is an absolute rarity!

Image: Giphy

But something changed when the pandemic hit and the whole world retrieved indoors. A report published in 2020, revealed that the coronavirus lockdown caused the longest global seismic noise reduction in history up to 50% across 77 countries. In the absence of traffic on the roads, the everyday running of big office buildings etc, people started tuning into the sounds of nature.

While the world woke to the sound of silence only recently, there is one man who has been advocating for preserving the quiet for the last forty-one years— Gordon Hempton.

Gordon’s image: Newsweek

Gordon is an acoustic ecologist who has circled the globe three times in the last four decades documenting the quietest places on Earth. He does not define quiet as the absence of sound but the absence of human-made noise pollution that has enveloped the planet.

Why is quiet important?

When you save quiet, you actually wind up saving everything else, too

Hempton, BBC

In a world plagued by climate change, why is silence a priority? Apart from its therapeutic properties, silence has a bigger role to play. World Health Organisation reports that prolonged exposure to noise pollution can lead to heart attacks, higher blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, dementia and depression (Read: Manipur’s decision to mute ambulance sirens is a reminder of Covid anxiety) In Europe alone, environmental noise pollution contributes to 48,000 cases of heart disease! And noise is not very kind to our friends from the wild either. It threatens the survival of more than 100 animal species!

Bats use sound to track their prey. Noise pollution interferes with this causing them to spend more time and energy in locating their food. Image: NCC

Animals rely on sound for many things, right from prey to mate, and human-made noises interfere with the process. Traffic noise increases the heart rates of butterfly caterpillars. The sound from a distant compressor station, the engine that powers a long distance natural gas pipeline, makes it difficult for owls to find their prey. The reverberating hum of snowmobiles causes stress-hormone levels to spike in wolves and elk. While birds and frogs have been forced to adapt their sound patterns to the noise around them, marine life is not so fortunate. Sound travels faster and farther in water and as such leads to lasting impact on aquatic life. Noise from shipping and other human activities in water bodies is the cause of schools of dolphins and whales developing stress, hearing loss and chronic diseases.

It is all the more important to think about this issue now for the world is just getting busier and noisier. In the last fifty years, the global population has doubled, and air traffic has increased nearly sixfold between 1980 and 2019. Projections show that there will two billion more cars on the road in 2030.

This makes a quest for silence not just a luxury while enjoying a cup of tea in the balcony but a social responsibility as a member of Earth’s family.

And this is exactly what Hempton stands for.

The quest for silence

Hempton’s search for the quietest spots on our rather loud planet has led him to find that the healthiest ecosystems are often the quietest. These are the places that are taking carbon out of our environment, releasing more oxygen, and preserving species that are elsewhere labelled endangered. Therefore, it is important to consider noise as the sound of climate change so that measures can be taken to control it.

Hempton was the first person ever to record natural ambience. It was only in 2005, a decade after he started recording natural sounds, that he found the quietest spot in the United States. It was a one-square-inch piece of a fallen log cloaked in fern protected by tall hemlock in the Hoh.

Hempton marked the spot with a red stone. Image: BBC (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Since it is in the farthest, most north-western part of the country, there are no commercial flights. There is one highway which is twenty-nine kilometres away. It stays cloudy for 240 days in a year. It is covered in moss which provides a padding against sound, and then there is the rainforest with its tall trees. All these factors contributed to making it the quietest spot in the country. He called this spot “One Square Inch of Silence” and had protected it by placing a red rock on it. It may seem to be a mere square inch but it could be influenced by sound from 1,600 kilometres away. So protecting this very small piece of land invariably protects its surrounding 1,600 kilometres. Alas this discovery was also short-lived as a Naval base started sending its jet flights over the Hoh as part of its electronic warfare programme. But Hempton remained undeterred and went on to look for more of these havens of silence.

Image: BBC (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Most recently, he set up Quiet Parks International (QPI), a first-of-its-kind non-profit dedicating to certifying and preserving Earth’s last natural soundscapes from human generated noise pollution. QPI advocates quiet tourism to allow travellers to engage with the sonic, and not juts scenic, wonders of the world. Till date, the team has identified 250 spots around the world that are eligible to be QPI’s “Quiet Places”. It hopes to certify more than 50 such locations by 2030.

The process of identification is extremely thorough. The team studies light pollution and flight path, and then tracks potential spots on Google Earth to find proximity to mining trails, power lines and other indicators of noise pollution. With the help of local communities, they test potential sites for three consecutive days checking decibel levels from an hour before sunrise, until two hours after sunset.

In 2019, a million-acre part of the Amazon Rainforest was certified as the world’s first “Wilderness Quiet Park” by QPI. While the area has demanded attention from those looking to extract oil, locals believe that this designation will help preserve the ecosystem in all its natural glory.

QPI also designates these zones of silence in cities where the decibel range reading remains within 40-50. It is almost as much as a library hush!

And QPI has many plans for the future. It is developing Quiet Trails and Marine Parks, and hopes to create a chain of quiet restaurants and flights, allowing everyone to experience the world through a different sense, one that is often ignored or drowned in the noise.

We’re so busy trying to see the world, but listening is what tells the real story of a place…When you’re listening, truly listening, a whole new universe is revealed.

Hempton, BBC

Before you go, unravel the image below to see the first Urban Quiet Park. Its beauty will serve as an inspiration to support and carry on Hempton’s pathbreaking work.

Silence definitely looks pretty! Find out about other Urban Quiet Parks and share them with Owliver in the comments section below.

With excerpts from BBC and Newsweek