As we approach the autumn, change is in the air.  The nights are cooler and we’re starting to see some colours appear (and I don’t mean the plethora of political campaign signs). During the fall season, most of the attention is focussed on the sights vs. sounds of nature.  The fall folliage is a visual treat, but the sounds of our natural (and built) world also have a significant influence on our quality of life.  The crunch of leaves underfoot and migrating geese overhead are pleasant sounds, but nature’s ‘music’ is often drowned out by non-natural noises that detract from relaxation, restoration, and our enjoyment of leisure activities.  In some cases, the noise we take for granted has a harmful effect on our health.

As city dwellers, we have adapted to and tolerate a lot of noise that is outside of our control.  Cell phones, email alerts, car horns, sirens, and traffic noises are all part of modern life.  However, noise (unwanted sound) can have a negative impact on our heart, immune system, memory, and learning abilities.  Noise doesn’t have to be loud to cause problems (anyone trying to concentrate on a task knows how distracting certain ringtones can be) The insidious creep of unwanted sound into our lives is something relatively new and potentially outside our awareness.  Humans are hard-wired to notice sudden and immediate threats vs. those that slowly encroach upon our well-being (e.g., the sudden sound of breaking glass vs. the drone of a lawmower).  Unfortunately, our increasingly noisy world is making it harder to escape this type of environmental stressor.  The very places we seek peace and quiet, rest and relaxation – parks and greenspace – are also infiltrated with noise, usually from transportation (traffic and airplanes).  It is a challenge to avoid the effects of noise pollution, even in nature.

There are times when a lot of noise is tolerable or even welcome ( who hasn’t cranked up the volume when listening to their favourite music).  I enjoy the happy chatter around Trent university at this time of year and teaching large classes of students, I am used to working in an often-noisy environment.  But as much as I love my job, I sometimes need a break, and so seek quiet in the lakes and portages of northern Algonquin park.

Travelling on foot and by canoe, I am instantly aware of the diversity of sounds around me – the hum of the late-summer insects whizzing by, and the peeps, chirps, and whistles of innumerable bird species.  Red squirrels chatter disapprovingly at the interruption of their foraging, usually followed by the crash of a pinecone, launched from high above, soon to be retrieved and cached for winter.  In the forest, even the tiniest creatures are audible amidst the quiet.  On rare occasions, I’ve heard the distant and faint sounds of adult wolves ‘singing’ to pups left at a rendez vous site, and the enchanting yips and yelps of pups howling back in response.

On this year’s canoe trip, almost every hour, the sound of water trickling off my paddle or the soulful wail of loons was interrupted by overhead aircraft noise.  Twenty kilometers of portaging is clearly not enough to escape ‘city’ noise.  The annoyance I felt when helicopters or planes buzzed over the lakes we temporarily called home made me ponder why this was so unsettling.  Airplane noise is a fact of life and these were not emergency flights (it’s understandable when aircraft are needed for search and rescue or forest fire missions).  There was something disquieting (pun intended), however, about the juxtaposition of natural sounds from birds, frogs, chipmunks, and crickets with combustion engine noise.

Maybe it’s because it reminds me that we are losing a precious commodity – silence.  The relatively new field of soundscape ecology examines the acoustic features of ecosystems and so far the news is not good.  Over a six year period, equipment set up in one of the most remote (and one would think quiet) places in North America (Denali National Park, Alaska) recorded only 36 complete days without some sort of combustion engine noise.  During one 24-hour period, traffic or engine sounds occurred every 17 minutes.  That’s not much peace and quiet!  The lack of uninterrupted and undisturbed natural sound is taking a toll on our wild places, the wildlife dependent on those landscapes, as well as human health.

In natural settings, mechanical noise detracts from recreational experiences.  Surveys of over 15,000 visitors to 39 U.S National Parks concluded that people place considerable value on natural quiet (second only to clean air).  Follow-up reports a month later suggest there were negative lasting effects on park enjoyment and mood after exposure to aircraft noise. Unwanted or excessive noise affects us in ways we may not be aware of.  Noise contributes to hearing loss, increased blood pressure, and changes in our circulation and hormone levels.  Transportation-related noise is linked with cardiovascular problems like hypertension and myocardial infarction.  Noise affects our performance on tasks, our well-being, and our sleep.

Children exposed to aircraft noise in California had poorer reading comprehension and memory, as well as more negative moods (maybe you can relate if your office or school is under the Pearson flight path).  Similar research showed students at schools near airports had higher grades and dropout rates declined when the aircraft noise stopped.  Even within a school noise differences affect learning.  Students whose New York city classroom was near a train track had poorer reading abilities than students on the other side of the building (reading abilities no longer differed after soundproofing work was done).  Children attending school near airports have lower academic achievement, impaired hearing and reading skills, and higher resting blood pressure levels (compared to children schooled in quieter areas).  Noise exposure has a negative impact on our attention, memory, performance, and well-being, as well as delayed effects such as motivation deficits.

Having some control (either real or perceived) over this type of environmental stress can reduce the short and long-term effects on our performance and health.  In other words, noise has a great impact on our quality of life but we also have some control in how we shape our environments.  Because traffic noise has particularly hazardous consequences for memory and attention, we can design our communities with this in mind, creating nature refuges to buffer some of the unavoidable noise in urban centres. Residential surveys indicate that people seek out and prefer dwellings that are quiet.  Access to nearby greenspace decreases the annoyance people feel about traffic noise.  In the Netherlands, adults in neighbouroods with high levels of traffic-related noise were less likely to walk or cycle to work or for leisure.  Thus, noise may indirectly affect health if it makes outdoor activity unappealing.

Speaking of noise, we can and should be asking our local political candidates how they will ensure our natural spaces are incorporated into long-term planning and health policy.   In addition to the many health benefits associated with tree density, our urban green spaces are a valuable health resource, providing relief from noise, heat, and other environmental stressors, as well as opportunities for psychological and physical restoration.  Let’s ask our candidates about their understanding of the future health challenges facing Canadians and the importance of our natural environment in promoting physical and mental well-being.  On this issue, we should definitely not keep quiet.

Categories: Columns

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.