The Last Place on Earth Without Human Noise (BBC)
Is there anywhere left utterly free of man-made sound? In the first of a series for BBC Future called Last Place on Earth, Rachel Nuwer sets out to find havens where silence still rules – but discovers that avoiding civilisation’s clatter is harder than it seems. In fact, there’s one human noise you will never escape.
A special kind of noisiness accosts passengers waiting for New York City subways. Down there, sound levels regularly exceed 100 decibels – enough to damage a person’s hearing over time. It was on one such platform that George Foy, a journalist and New York University creative writing professor, suddenly found himself losing it one day, when four trains pulled in at once. “I kind of went momentarily crazy,” he says. He hunched over and stuck his fingers in his ears, desperately trying to block out the cacophony. “I started wondering why the hell I was putting up with this,” he says.
It was then that his obsession to find the quietest place on Earth began. “I thought, ‘If this is the craziness of noise, what is the opposite? What is absolute silence, and does it exist?’”
Foy took it upon himself to seek out the world’s quietest place, detailed in his recent book, Zero Decibels. He joins many others, ranging from health professionals to ecologists to hobbyists, who have attempted to seek out the quietest corners in the world. Yet it turns out that finding those unsullied locations is more difficult than it might seem. Foy, for one, did find his ultimate silent spot in the end, but it wasn’t quite the peaceful refuge he anticipated – in fact, he discovered there that there’s one human noise none of us can ever escape.
Sit still for a moment, and prick up your ears. What can you hear? Even in what seems like silence: you may soon notice the hum of your computer, the ticking of a clock, the electric burr of a refrigerator or an air conditioner, or the faint hum of a car passing by. Humanity’s noises are always with us in one form or another.
So if you were seeking to escape this background buzz, where would you start? First let’s assume that you’d want somewhere reasonably pleasant to visit. So while deep underground might be an option, it wouldn’t be very hospitable. Similarly, life underwater would be full of hardships – and in any case, you couldn’t escape man-made sounds like scuba regulators or submarine engines because you’d need them to stay alive. That’s not to mention the underwater rumblings of ships, drilling and explosions that permeate the worlds’ oceans. In water, sound travels more than four times faster than in air, and reaches further.
On land, scratching noisy places off the list of potentials comes easily. Satellite images can be used to exclude all areas with artificial light. Google Earth further reveals timber operations, mining, agriculture, roads and nautical shipping routes – all, presumably, rife with noise.
Following this logic, Antarctica immediately comes to mind as a promising candidate. It no doubt has silent corners – but the seasons do make things tricky. In the winter, you wouldn’t want to go for a stroll. And in the summer, research planes and tourism boats are prevalent, and resident scientists power their camps with whirring diesel generators, the rumble of which can be heard for 20 miles or more around.
Other apparently remote regions of Earth might prove no better. Planes are the primary culprits. The rumblings of the largest aircrafts can, on a clear day, travel up to 160km (100 miles). There is no altitude that a commercial jet can fly at which it is not audible on the ground, and the sound of any given aircraft can be heard, on average, between three to eight minutes as it passes overhead.
While no commercial flights travel across Antarctica, they do cruise over wildernesses such as northern Canada, Siberia or the Sahara. The North Pole is out too, as planes regularly traverse that route on trips between North America and Europe. Even deep in the Amazon rainforest, 1,900 km (1,200 miles) from the nearest city, Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and founder of the non–profit One Square Inch, recorded sounds from one or two aircrafts per hour. “Even if you are far from a road, you are not far from the roads in the sky,” he says.
Unfortunately, Hempton says that there is absolutely no place on Earth that is completely free from human sound all of the time. A map of the established flight paths over the US, for example, “looks like a plate of spaghetti,” he says.
Hempton is not alone in this pronouncement. “There are no places on Earth that I’ve been that haven’t been affected by human sound,” agrees Bernie Krause, an expert in bioacoustics and one of the founders of the field of soundscape ecology. “All over the Earth, not a day goes by when you don’t hear something.”
Given the lack of truly silent places in nature, identifying the quietest place on Earth really boils down to how stringent you are about how long silence should last….
READ MORE OF THIS BBC ARTICLE HERE.