“These are soundscapes that no one will ever experience again in their natural state. They exist now only as an abstraction, a digital acoustic impression of what we once had.” —Bernie Krause
Climate change has brought entire natural habitats to complete silence. The song of birds, the croaking of frogs and the buzzing of insects have vanished in areas where climate change eco-system impacts kill species that are unable to evolve quickly enough to adjust to a rapidly changing environment. Species that can migrate are doing so in increasing numbers in a desperate effort to survive.
Biophony specifically refers to the collective non-human sounds that occur in any given eco-system at any given time. It has provided scientific evidence to show that the sounds of nature have been altered by both global warming and other human endeavors.
In a December 2015 interview with Outside Magazine, Bernie Krause reveals the uncomfortable truth that the natural world is increasingly silent.
OUTSIDE: What is soundscape ecology?
KRAUSE: Most of our writing and thinking about the natural world is visual. If it looks pretty, if it’s visually spectacular, that’s what we concentrate on. We have the descriptive language for that kind of reflection. But we have few words to describe in any great detail the sounds we hear when walking in the woods. Soundscape ecology is, in part, a response to this gap. It’s the study of the sound that comes from the landscape—urban, rural, or wild. I concentrate on the organisms in remote and still-untrammeled places. I call this the biophony: all the living organisms that vocalize in a given habitat, sounding together. There’s also natural sound in a habitat from wind in the trees and water in a stream. I refer to these nonbiological sounds as the geophony.
In your new book, you point out that these biophonies provide us with “numerous prisms through which to view our relationship to the non-human critter world.” It’s so important that we begin to investigate these prisms and explore what they have to teach us—and soon. The natural soundscape is very fragile, and it’s disappearing very quickly.
Which sounds are the first to go? Usually, it’s what’s called partitioning. In a healthy habitat, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals form acoustic niches, sonic territories that they establish so that their voices can be heard unimpeded by others. These partitions are critical to their survival. Their cohesion begins to break down in habitats that are stressed even in slight ways.
For example, there are logging companies that believe selective logging projects will have almost no environmental impact; you’re just taking out a tree here and there. But if you pay attention to the sounds of the living organisms inhabiting a given site, another story will often emerge. If you can get a baseline recording before the selective logging takes place, and then a follow-up recording after the first cuts have been made, you’ll likely hear some notable changes.
Sugarloaf California before and after the climate change induced drought.
A healthy Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica in 1989.
After a logging event at the same forest in Costa Rica.
Bernie Krause recording the sounds of extinction.