Thursday, 30 June 2011 10:32

Grasslands National Park may be home to the quietest place on earth

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By Rose Sanchez — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Saskatchewan residents may not have to travel far to find the quietest place on earth.

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George Hempton is checking some data at Grasslands National Park near Val Marie.

(NOTE: PLEASE LISTEN TO SOUNDS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE INCLUDING ACTUAL GATHERED SOUNDS FROM HEMPTON INCLUDING A JET AND A SAMPLE FROM THE WEST BLOCK OF THE PARK)


That’s the conclusion Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, has come up with after spending time listening to the sounds of Grasslands National Park (GNP).


Hempton was at GNP from June 16-28 to conduct a preliminary acoustic ecology survey thanks to partnerships with Parks Canada, Tourism Saskatchewan and Royal Canadian Geographic Society - Canadian Geographic magazine.


What Hempton has discovered in his research is astounding.


“Grasslands National Park has the quietest, purest sounds,” he says. “It’s the least polluted of any other grasslands in North America and I’ve been to everything worth considering in North America.”


In order to be considered a truly quiet place, there has to be at least 15 minutes, during daylight hours, when only the sounds of nature are present and there are no human intrusions.


In the United States, there are only 12 such places and none of them represent the prairie landscape.


“The prairies’ soundscape is heavenly,” says Hempton. “There’s something magical about the wind blowing through the grasses.”


The number one source of noise pollution is aircraft, then followed by trains in more rural locations.


While there are some aircraft flying over GNP, Hempton has found the noise-free intervals in the national park to be often longer than 15 minutes and upwards of an hour.


“It truly is a remarkable place,” he adds.


During the survey, he rose early in the morning to capture the sounds of the prairie landscape. Dawn this time of year arrives about 3 a.m. with the first dome of light seen to the east, he says. There have been many times when Hempton has found himself moving to the music dawn creates, as the prairie landscape comes to life with the wind swaying in the grass and the sounds of songbirds.


“The meadowlark here is really astounding,” he says. It has a more poetic sound in GNP than the birds he has heard before.


Hempton has spoken at many events about acoustic ecology and finds people are usually puzzled when they hear there are only about a dozen places remaining in the U.S. that are free of noise pollution for 15 minutes or longer. That’s because most people don’t know the sounds of nature without human intrusions.


There is also epidemic hearing loss in the United States, as it has taken over the Number 1 spot for occupational illnesses.
Hearing songbirds denotes a healthy ecosystem. It was also important to human survival, because the presence of songbirds meant water and food sources which could benefit humans also.


“We have the same mind today as those people — we hear bird song as something beautiful and it attracts us...”
Hempton says national parks are places set aside to help remind people who they really are and of their roots.
“A distant jet roar is significant, it’s equivalent to the knock on a bedroom door ... I’m a firm believer quiet places are a place to simply be. It’s a place where you can let your to-do list shrink to those most important things like family and friends.”


Hempton also believes when people become better listeners to nature, they also become better listeners to each other.
Currently there is no designated noise-free place in the world and few places can offer “quiet” as a tourist draw. Hempton believes Grasslands National Park could be the world’s first designated quiet place.


“This is as important as clean air and clean water,” says Hempton.


Pat Fargey, biologist with GNP, sees the value of being able to increase the soundscape experience for visitors to the park.
“He will definitely be able to tell us how quiet we are in a way we didn’t understand before. In some ways, it helps us understand better what makes this place special,”  says Fargey.


“Cities and urban areas have ambient noise levels that are so high, it takes its toll on people. We need to find quiet places, treasure them and preserve them.”


A soundscape management plan could be in the works for the park, once staff have a better understanding of the results of Hempton’s survey. They will also look to the U.S. to see how they have been handling their quiet places.


“It’s similar to a dark sky preservation,” says Fargey. “That process made us much more aware ... we will take what we learn and incorporate it into our future management.”
To be designated a quiet place, the federal government would have to introduce legislation making GNP off limits to all aircraft. Other requirements would have to be met also, such as not introducing electricity into certain areas which comes with the tell-tale hum and no generators in campgrounds or motor vehicles operating during dawn and in the evening.


Hempton’s sound survey will detail to Parks Canada staff the diversity of sounds in GNP, the opportunities of creating a quiet place designation and describe the level of noise pollution or in turn degree of purity.


“Dozen of places are quiet in the U.S., but they’re quiet as a result of circumstance, not quiet as a result of planning,” says Hempton. “Here at Grasslands, (they) really have an opportunity— if the opportunity is taken advantage of — it could be one of the world’s first quiet places ... the first of many.”


Working towards legislating a quiet place will also take people recognizing the important existence of quiet in their lives. This is done already for example in churches, libraries and during significant ceremonies.
Hempton knows some people will want to deal with other environmental concerns first before dealing with noise pollution.


“It’s a myth that noise pollution is like a light switch on a wall,” says Hempton. “Solving environmental crisis ... is going to take loving the earth ... Quiet places offer the meeting place to fall back in love with the earth.


“This is one piece of legislative paper to solve a major environmental issue. If we can’t do this, you aren’t going to convince me at all we can do those other things (as in solving other environmental concerns) ...
“We just are already in a lost place.”


Sounds of Nature Sounds of a jet

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