The Great Outdoors: The Rise of Noise Pollution in US National Parks

The Great Outdoors: The Rise of Noise Pollution in US National Parks

As many of us escape the noise and hustle and bustle of the city by taking trips to the great outdoors, recent reports have shown that America’s national parks, the last bastions of peace and quiet, are no more. Noise pollution is invading even the most protected natural areas. Human induced noise pollution has negative impacts on the wildlife, ecosystems, and yes, people too.

What is Noise Pollution?

Noise pollution is defined as regular exposure to heightened sound levels that have adverse effects or impacts to humans and other living organisms. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that exposure to sound levels of 85dB (decibels) or higher for prolonged periods of time (~8 hours daily) can be hazardous.

Noise Pollution & Noise Induced Hearing Loss

People suffer some loss of hearing as they age, but prolonged exposure to noise accelerates this process. Of the 28 million American who suffer from hearing loss, roughly one-third have been affected, at least in part, by noise. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is hearing loss caused by extremely loud sounds, either a one-time, brief burst of sound or by exposure to a loud noise over an extended period of time. This may result in immediate hearing loss or a
gradual decline in hearing ability. It can be temporary or permanent, and may impact either ears.

As WHO states, long or continuous sound exposure at or above 85dB can result in hearing damage, and either temporary or permanent. You’d be surprised what every day noises fall in between 85-100dB. Noises that fall in this range include: hair dryers, food processors, trucks or motorcycles, power tools, and yard and garden tools. Extremely loud sounds like firecrackers, firearms, explosives, and jet engines are all above 120db could be enough to cause permanent hearing loss, even if only exposed once.

National Parks and Noise Pollution

The everyday sounds that may be damaging to our ears are now infringing into the quiet, peaceful areas of national parks. According to Rachel Buxton of Colorado State University, such areas “where people go for respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life…a good percentage of them experience levels of noise pollution.”

Noise pollution in natural parks not only impact wildlife, the ecosystem, but can be damaging to human visitors as well. Human-caused noise pollution in natural parks and protected areas can alter ecological communities. Extreme noise may scare away carnivores, resulting in inflated numbers of prey species for example. Further, as a visitor, noise pollution reduces our ability to hear natural sounds, which degrade the calming effect that we seek when we travel into nature.

Studies have shown that in over 60% of parks and other protected natural areas, noise has become so intrusive to the point that sounds that would normally be audible at a distance of 100ft now can only be heard at half the distance. The loudest areas showed shockingly high levels that can be potentially bad for human hearing health. What is causing the noise pollution? The biggest culprits are human induced: vehicles such as cars and trucks, aircrafts, and the din of natural resource industries such as oil and gas extraction.

Although protected natural parks may be exposed to noise pollution, there are ways to reduce it. There have been efforts to align airplane flight patterns over roads which confine noise corridors. Further, agencies have established quiet zones where visitors are encouraged to peacefully and quietly enjoy natural areas. Through these protective measures, natural acoustic environments are restored so that visitors are able to enjoy the natural sounds of birdsong and psithurism (the sound of rustling leaves or wind in the trees), and not be exposed to dangerous, high decibel noises that impact their hearing.

Awareness and Protection from Noise Pollution & Noise Induced Hearing Loss

You may be able to prevent hearing loss first being aware of the noises around you. If you are traveling into nature, know that many parks now face noise pollution. Be sure to bring along ear plugs or other hearing protection if there are extremely loud noises emanating within natural parks.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of NIHL, seek a hearing test with us at Hearing Health. We’ll be able to determine your level of hearing loss, provide important tips to protect your hearing, and work with you in finding solutions and treatment that meet your specific needs!