National Park Service maps show the country’s quietest places are without water, humans | SummitDaily.com

National Park Service maps show the country’s quietest places are without water, humans

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily

You've been driving for a while and haven't seen another vehicle in several minutes. You stop because it seems like a good idea.

The "whump" of your car door echoes away as you step out and close it.

Suddenly, you're embraced by it.

"Listen to that," you say quietly.

"What?" replies your traveling companion. "I don't hear anything."

"Exactly," you whisper. "Listen to how quiet it is."

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Mapping quiet

Away from the din of the digital age, you can find quiet if you know where to look.

The National Park Service made that a little easier when the agency mapped quiet, both the way it is now, and the way it would look if you removed human activity.

Solitude and silence are easy to find in our Central Rockies region.

You cannot remove humans from the modern equation, of course, but you can get as close as technology will allow, explained Kurt Fristrup, the National Park Service's Colorado branch chief for science and technology.

Conserving quiet and night sky environments for future generations is part of National Park Service policy — Director's Order No. 47.

"It's easy to become used to noise. People are pretty good at ignoring their ears," Fristrup said. "The question then is, how many young people will develop an ear for that kind of quiet? It's a skill, and it's a skill that could be lost if they're never given a chance to develop it."

How they did it

Researches have been measuring sound levels and dark levels for a decade, and, among other things, they learned they can't get everything all the time.

"It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You finish at one end, and it's time to start again at the other end," Fristrup said.

Still, they have plenty of data to map both quiet and darkness.

The Park Service recorded 1.5 million hours of audio using sound meter gauges at 546 locations around the country, measuring parks as well as urban and rural areas.

Scientists fed those recordings into sophisticated computer models that helped them understand relationships between the sound measurements and how those measurements were affected by things such as climate, topography, human activity, time of day and day of year.

Those sound models can also estimate how places would sound naturally, without humans.

To do that, scientists minimized human factors, leaving only naturally occurring sounds such as wind, flowing water, precipitation, animals and geological events.

Wyoming is the Quiet Capital

The country's quietest places are the West's arid regions, the data found.

That's because, along with humans, moving water tends to be noisy.

"Sometimes humans can be quiet, depending on what we're doing, but, generally, we tend to be noisy," Fristrup said.

Because water also tends to be noisy, so greener, wetter places such as Florida's Everglades National Park have more natural noise. Wind blows through vegetation, water flows and more animals (especially birds and frogs) vocalize in more fertile locations, a National Park Service report states.

In our region, Utah's slickrock country with its isolated desert landscape is one of the quietest places on Earth.

In our local valleys, get five miles away from an interstate highway and you'll find quiet, Fristrup said. "If you're near a highway and move toward a river, the river will quickly drown out the highway noise."

Nevada is home some of the country's quietest places. In fact, if not for Las Vegas, Nevada would easily beat Wyoming as the nation's capital of quiet.

Health issue

It turns out silence is also a health issue.

The American Psychological Association confirmed what several psychologists have known for decades: Chronic noise impairs a child's development and may have a lifelong effect on educational achievement and overall health. Numerous studies now show that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways are slower in developing cognitive and language skills and have lower reading scores, the association said.

"There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population," the APA report concludes, citing children as particularly vulnerable to the effects of chronic urban and suburban racket.

To learn more

Go to the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Sky Division, https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1050/index.htm

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