Thursday, February 20, 2014

Musings: Noise Pollution and the Search for Natural Soundscapes

If you had to venture a guess as to the location of the quietest place in the United States, what would it be?  In a desert in the Southwest?  On a glacier in Alaska? In the middle of a cornfield in the Midwest? According to the One Square Inch project, the quietest place in the United States in located right here in Washington State’s own Olympic National Park.

Hall of Mosses, Olympic National Park.  Photo courtesy NPS

The One Square Inch Foundation is dedicated to the preservation of natural spaces from the intrusion of noise pollution, and on Earth Day in 2005 designated the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park as an example of soundscape management and the benefits of a space devoid of noise pollution. After happily stumbling across a wonderfully written article on this subject by Kathleen Dean Moore, I had to learn more about One Square Inch.  What exactly does it mean to be the quietest place in the United States? 

It means that all you hear is nature. Marked only by a small red stone 3.2 miles up Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park, the One Square Inch of Silence is free from any human noise.  No droning of airplanes, no road noise, no human conversation… just the delicate, quiet sounds of the natural world that are so frequently drowned out by human noise, or that go unnoticed to our ears which are no longer attuned to listening for them. 

Each day, we are aware of the visible landscape that surrounds us, but how often do we pay attention to the soundscapes that surround us?  It is astounding to discover how loud your world actually is when you take a moment to really listen to, and endeavor to identify, the everyday sounds that have faded into subconscious background noise.  For a person such as myself who lives in just about the noisiest place possible, a square inch of silence where only nature sounds can be heard sounds like absolute bliss.

My home soundscape is noisy. Even with the windows closed, the sound of traffic on the nearby freeway is ever-present in my house.  Opening my windows for fresh air also invites in the overwhelming roar of tires traveling at high speeds over pavement, the ear-splitting wails of sirens, and the constant low rumble of airplane traffic overhead, with the occasional thwap-thwap sound of a helicopter. If I’m fortunate enough, I can pick out the sound of birdsong or hear the rustle of a breeze in the small stand of Doug firs nearby.  With the hum of computers, the rattling/whooshing noise of the furnace, blaring television and constant drone of the fridge, my indoor soundscape isn’t much quieter.

Perhaps the search to fulfill that innate need for peace, solitude, and escape from human noise pollution is one of the reasons why I love hiking so much.  When you’re hiking, the sounds of human activity are overshadowed, if not eclipsed completely, by the sounds of nature.  However, if you’re lucky enough to travel to Olympic National Park and hike to the One Square Inch of silence, you can be certain of experiencing a soundscape comprised solely of the music of the natural world. I think I found another thing to add to my bucket list.

Sand Point Trail, Olympic National Park. Photo courtesy NPS
You MUST listen to the “Breathing Space” recordings on the One Square Inch website.  These are lengthy recordings of the sounds of nature in Olympic National Park, including a rainstorm in the forest, ocean waves, and the sounds of spring.  If you’re having a stressful day, I guarantee your blood pressure will drop a few points as you listen!

Is it completely awful that I had to use noise-canceling headphones just to be able to listen to these recordings and appreciate their full beauty without the distraction of traffic noise from outside?  Noise pollution indeed.

What does your daily soundscape sound like? Peaceful? Noisy? Do you love it or hate it? Feel free to share in the comments below!


  1. I have saved the Breathing Space website in my Favorites and will listen in on the One Square Inch sounds while working on my computer. What a delightful way to do work. Thank you.

    1. I've been listening to the Breathing Space recordings as I work, too! They're very soothing.

      I just love the clarity and detail of the nature sounds in the recordings... when I listen with headphones on, I have to stifle the urge to swat at the air when the sound of a bumblebee buzzes in my ear!