A Quest to Protect the World’s Last Silent Places
Through Quiet Parks International, Gordon Hempton hopes to save the earth’s few truly natural soundscapes
In 2005, Gordon Hempton placed a small stone on a log in the Hoh Rainforest of Washington’s Olympic National Park, one of the quietest places in the world. He dubbed his miniature cairn One Square Inch of Silence. If he could keep the rock free of human noise pollution, Hempton reasoned, many surrounding square miles would be free of it, too.
Hempton, now 66, lives in the small town of Joyce, less than 15 miles from the park. He’s been recording endangered natural soundscapes around the world for more than 37 years. A documentary he made about his work, Vanishing Dawn Chorus, won an Emmy Award in 1992. “The earth is a solar-powered jukebox,” he likes to say.
For years, One Square Inch of Silence worked: Hempton monitored the spot and alerted noisemakers—mainly commercial airlines—of their trespasses via recordings and letters. He wrote a book about it, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet, and used it to spread awareness about the beauty of natural sound. Then, last year, the U.S. Navy ramped up training flights from its nearby Whidbey Island base to a large area over the western part of the park. Growlers, as the Boeing EA-18G radar-jamming jets are called, began flying more than six missions a day, producing a rumbling on the ground sometimes topping 70 decibels, about as loud as your garbage disposal.
One Square Inch of Silence became, frequently, loud. Hempton filed a complaint during the Navy’s public-comment period, which he says was censored and never saw the light of day. Recently, Hempton admitted the project had failed and started looking for ways to move forward.
“I realized I was asking the international community to care about one place,” Hempton says. “It wasn’t enough to talk about one place. We needed to talk about all places.”
For the past year, Hempton has been working on a new project, Quiet Parks International (QPI), which aims to certify and protect earth’s natural soundscapes. If it works, it will be one of the most comprehensive, cohesive actions ever aimed at curbing noise pollution.
The problem Hempton hopes to take on is gargantuan. To understand it, try a little experiment: when you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen.
What did you hear? The churn of the refrigerator? The racing hiss of passing traffic? Even if you’re sitting outside, chances are you heard the low hum of a plane passing overhead or an 18-wheeler’s air horn shrieking down a not-so-distant highway.
If you heard only the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, you’re one of a lucky few. But it’s likely that quiet won’t last.
Just as humans have spread colossal amounts of carbon dioxide and trash around the planet, we’ve also blanketed it in our damn racket. Air traffic has tripled since the 1980s, and the number of cars worldwide, already over a billion, is expected to reach two billion by 2030; the U.S. Bureau of Transportation estimates that 97 percent of the American population is regularly exposed to highway and air-traffic noise. And it’s not just in populated areas. A study published in Science in May 2017 found that human-caused noise had doubled background decibel levels in many of the most protected wildlife habitats worldwide. (In some endangered habitats, it increased background decibels tenfold.) Human noise is constant and practically everywhere.
When you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen. What did you hear?
Recent studies have shown that quiet can decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure and heart rate; another showed that silence helped mice regenerate brain cells in their hippocampus. On the flip side, man-made noise has been proven harmful both to people (causing high blood pressure, heart disease, and low birth weight) and especially natural ecosystems. When a researcher from Boise State University introduced a “phantom road” into pristine Idaho wilderness by simulating the din of traffic through loudspeakers, the noise alone drove a third of the local songbird population away. Some of the birds that stayed lost significant portions of their body mass, likely because they couldn’t hear to communicate or hunt.
“There is an epidemic of extinction of quiet places on the planet,” says Hempton. Haleakala Crater in Hawaii, formerly one of the world’s quietest spots, is overrun with more than 4,000 helicopter tours a year; in a recent story in The New York Times, several naturalists in search of quiet in remote regions of New Hampshire’s White Mountains were foiled by motorcycles, buses, and wailing babies. Hempton estimates that there are now fewer than ten places in the U.S. where natural noise can be heard uninterrupted by noise pollution for longer than 15-minute intervals.
The solution, he believes, is not meeting the noisemakers head-on. In 2017, Hempton and the captain of the Whidbey Island air station, Geoff Moore, went for a hike together in the Hoh Rainforest, but nothing changed. The big noisemakers, like overhead flight paths and power plants, are mostly unstoppable once they’ve been established. Instead, QPI is looking to locate the rare, relatively untouched natural soundscapes around the world and protect them before it’s too late.
The first question QPI has to answer seems simple: How quiet is quiet? Hempton and his team have already identified over 260 exceptionally quiet places around the world. Next, with the permission of local communities and governments, they hope to send out teams to certify those areas as quiet parks.
The teams will test each potential site for three consecutive days, measuring natural-noise decibels and intrusions; while no area is pristine, these readings will help them set the organization’s official standards for certification. According to Hempton, any “alarming or shocking” signature, like gunshots, sirens, or military aircraft, would immediately disqualify it from certification. Loud noises, if they’re natural, are fine.
On top of these wilderness quiet parks, they’ll also certify urban quiet parks, quiet neighborhoods, quiet hotels, and quiet marine parks, using more flexible noise standards. “We call the the urban parks quieter parks,” said Matt Mikkelson, an acoustic expert and a QPI associate adviser.
The parks could use the certification as they wish. QPI’s model has taken inspiration from the International Dark-Sky Association, which has, over the last 31 years, changed public perception on light pollution, helped enact policy on national and local levels, and established 120 locations as International Dark Sky Places. People visit these areas solely to see the Milky Way. So, QPI figures, why wouldn’t they visit a quiet park solely to hear the birds and the wind?
They’ll soon find out. In April, QPI announced its first official wilderness quiet park, a large swath of land in Ecuador that includes the Zabalo River watershed. The land for the park, about 200,000 acres, is owned by the indigenous Cofán tribe. When Hempton visited the area to record its sounds for certification, he recognized it as “a sonic eden,” the most pristine soundscape he’d ever heard.
“In a word, it’s a symphony,” Hempton says. The only sound intrusions he recorded were distant, barely audible commercial-jet flyovers every few hours.
Zabalo will be patient zero for QPI’s other main question: How much tourism money can quiet places bring in?
Proving certified quiet places as moneymakers will be vital to convincing powerful problematic entities—say, the U.S. Navy and its $68 million jets—to respect the cost of clamor. As the population continues to increase, Hempton says, “every square mile of the planet will be scrutinized for what its value is. And we believe quiet is gold.”
Tickets for the first quiet-park tourist group, which was led by Hempton and lasted 13 days in the park this June, went for $4,485 each, with half of the proceeds going to the Cofán (the other half went to a travel service; QPI and Hempton’s help was gratis). In an e-mail, Randy Borman, president of the Centro Cofán Zabalo, who worked with Hempton to create the park, wrote: “This type of trip is extremely important to the community as we work on developing our strategies for survival as a culture and a people, but also as we work to keep an intact and working environment which can in turn provide environmental services to the world at large.” Borman’s son, Josh, helped Hempton lead the first tourist group. “We’re trying to conserve our lands,” he says. “We don’t want oil companies to come in, we don’t want planes or highways going over our land.”
If the math seems straightforward, it’s not. “[Monetization is] a clever idea,” said Nick Miller, a retired acoustic engineer on QPI’s standards committee. “But it’s tricky. You’ve got to be convincing that the quiet does make a difference in visitation.” Economists have figured the math for, say, the cost impact of noise in neighborhoods around airports. But those numbers are divisive—the FAA and homeowners can feel very differently about how much roaring necessitates financial compensation. And there’s no agreed-upon cost-benefit analysis of a jet-free forest.
“How do you get everybody to care about a resource to which they may never have had access?”
A bigger problem may be even more nebulous. “How do you get everybody to care about a resource to which they may never have had access?” says John Barentine, director of public policy for the International Dark-Sky Association. “If you’re a city dweller, and you don’t see stars at night, there’s a tendency to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way the world works.’ It would be the same for quiet parks.”
For now, QPI is in talks with park organizers in Sweden, Taiwan, New York City, and Portland, Oregon, where they hope to create urban quiet parks and build a grassroots movement. QPI just certified its first quiet community, Green Mountain Farm in North Carolina. And Hempton continues his stare down with the Navy in Olympic National Park. Even though the fighter-jet noise instantly disqualifies it from certification, he insists that Olympic will eventually become a quiet park. He hopes the Zabalo model can help prove to the Navy how much of the $300 million Olympic brings to the region has to do with its quiet. “The reason the Navy uses that space rather than Idaho is because they want to save fuel,” he said. “It’s an economic choice. But Olympic contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy, and the Navy doesn’t realize how they’re causing a negative economic impact.”
Activists are still fighting hard: in May, the National Parks Conservation Association (which has thrown its support behind QPI) announced it was suing the Navy for repeatedly failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the impact of its jet-training activities over Olympic. (The Navy declined to comment on the suit.)
Some days, Hempton finds the time to drive to the park and hike down the Hoh River Trail to the spot where a stone on a log still marks the one square inch he designated 14 years ago. During jet-free intervals, he listens to tree frogs croak and water droplets plop on the mossy forest floor. “For those who think of the environment and worry that the planet is coming to an end,” he says, “quiet is the total antidote. You come out with renewed hope.”