Recording Our Planet’s Acoustic Heritage—Before It’s Gone

Climate change, development, and invasive species all threaten natural soundscapes.

On spring evenings, musician Kristen Bellisario loves to paddle her canoe to the middle of her pond in Danville, Indiana, and listen to frogs, insects, and birds sing their hearts out. “There are all these different layers of sound,” she says, “but as soon as a vehicle drives by or there’s a loud disruption, the entire circle stops.”

[audioplayer:135551|align:right|caption:]Central Indiana, May 2008. A chorus of spring peepers in a pond.

Few people consider how human activity affects nature’s symphony. But that’s going to change, if the 75 members of the newly formed Global Soundscapes Sustainable Network, GSSN, are able to increase the decibel. “We need to raise awareness that our natural soundscapes are being threatened by the alteration of habitat, climate change, the spread of invasive species,” says Bryan Pijanowski, a landscape ecology professor at Purdue University. “This is the earth’s acoustic heritage. These sounds have been on our planet for millions of years. We need to make sure they aren’t lost forever.”

In 2010, Pijanowski cofounded the GSSN with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, inviting musicians like Bellisario, along with psychologists, engineers, and philosophers to share their expertise and join the fight. The group’s goals include contributing to World Listening Day; hosting workshops in places like Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to better train researchers; developing a website where members can share tools and data; commissioning an original composition made of field recordings from an acoustical ecologist; and creating a social media presence.

[audioplayer:135526|align:right|caption:]La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Light mid-day rain shower with birds, frogs, and howler monkeys intermixed.

Bernie Krause—a musician (member of the legendary folk group, the Weavers), author, and naturalist—has been recording natural sounds for decades and is a member. He also devised a hypothesis that species have evolved so that each one occupies its own acoustic niche, much like instruments in an orchestra. “The healthier the habitat, the more musical the creatures, the more distinct their voices are given their places in the chorus,” he says.

[audioplayer:135561|align:right|caption:]Sonoran Desert, Saguaro National Park, Arizona, August 2012.

Krause shared some of his 4,500 recordings at the GSSN’s first workshop last summer in Wisconsin. This summer the group will meet in the Arizona desert and the following year in the world’s oldest native forest in Borneo. “We expect the soundscapes there to be as rich as we could witness anywhere in the world,” Pijanowski says, adding: “Unfortunately with the paper industry’s encroachment, we’re not sure how much longer they will remain intact.” Should they be lost, at least the forests’ sounds will endure.

Here are four more samples of GSSN’s work:

[audioplayer:135541|align:right|caption:]La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica, August 2012. Dawn chorus, a time of day typically the most active for biological sounds.

[audioplayer:135546|align:right|caption:]Purdue University. An evening recording, July 2009. Purdue bells, night hawks, and traffic.

[audioplayer:135556|align:right|caption:]Aldo Leopold Shack, June 4, 2012. Dawn chorus at 5:42 am.

[audioplayer:135566|align:right|caption:]A piece by GSSN affiliate, Matthew James Briggs, who created an acoustic ecological composition by adding instrumental work to the Tippecanoe Soundscape Study wetlands recordings.