Beyond the visual beauty of its protected landscapes, US National Parks also contain natural soundscapes that have the potential to generate desirable outcomes for people’s health.
This finding is part of a large, recently published meta-analysis examining the impact of natural audio on visitor biomarkers, which analyzed dozens of different scientific papers on the subject.
When this author arrived at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah in 2018, I saw a two-mile hiking loop called the Sound of Silence Trail. When I started walking, I became aware of the sounds, or the lack of them, around me. After just a minute of hiking through a scrubby desert, I turned to look at my parked Nissan and saw a car pass by on the road just beyond. However, it produced no sound other than a gust of wind in the trees, as if the desert was swallowing or muffling the outside audio from reaching me.
This is just my own personal example of how Commissioners of the US National Park Service provision of trails, parking lots, campgrounds, and more to preserve auditory-important sections of landscape, a topic that prompted Rachel Buxton, a conservation scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, to break her habit of examining responses to stress from noise pollution to the healing effects of natural sounds.
In the introduction to his meta-analysis, Buxton refers to a study which measured how various factors such as lack of sleep and disease eliminated “healthy life years” from society, an interesting metric, and found that 650,000 years of healthy life are lost to noise pollution, 1000% more than cardiovascular disease.
Sounds cause reactions in all known vertebrates, and most animals and even plant life They have evolved to perceive sound as an important way to navigate the environment, find food and mate, and avoid danger. Therefore, the obscuration of sounds by noise pollution can cause many damaging neurological effects, such as an increase in cortisol secretion that can lead to negative health outcomes.
A prevailing theory as to why natural soundscapes promote healing is that they generally do not require directed attention and can allow the kind of “disconnection” of auditory focus, something that can almost never be done with constant stimulation from an urban environment.
In its meta-analysis, Buxton examined 36 studies, which together produced an average 28% reduction in discomfort when hearing natural sounds such as birds, wind, and water; perhaps not surprising. Of the traditional markers of health, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and perceived pain, all of which were lowered most strongly (23%) by the geophysical sounds of the water.
However, most of the studies reviewed were conducted in a laboratory, so in addition to a review of the literature, Buxton set out to measure the prevalence of sound in US National Parks, in part to help inform park managers, especially those in heavily visited areas. parks: how to organize infrastructure to preserve areas of rich soundscape.
“In parks, noise degrades the enjoyment and health of visitors directly as an environmental stressor and indirectly by altering the number of animals that produce sounds and therefore decreases the diversity of natural sounds,” he wrote. . However, when natural sounds were audible in combination with anthropogenic noise, the negative effects of noise pollution were greatly reduced.
Buxton et al. measured 221 audio recordings from 68 national park sites and found that 75% of them had high levels of natural sounds 75% of the time. The National Park Service works actively to protect and maintain soundscapes. Sometimes they also work to restore them, such as at the Muir Woods National Monument, where they put up signs asking visitors to “park quietly” near an area particularly rich in audio.
“These sounds are treasures to me, ”says Buxton. Smithsonian. “They are amazing natural resources, and it is extraordinary that they are also really good for our health and well-being. “
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