Listen up, park lovers

This is Moraine Park, a large open valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. The accompanying MP3 file was recorded there as part of a National Park Service project to record natural soundscapes that are unspoiled by human sounds. The scientists making the recordings are working under the gun — such pure, natural, unspoiled soundscapes are increasingly difficult to find. It’s rare to spend more than an hour or two anyplace before manmade sounds intrude.

Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo: Wes Lindamood/NPR)
Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo: Wes Lindamood/NPR)


This particular recording, one of 70 so far, was made by Jacob Job, an acoustic biologist at Colorado State University. He carried some 30 pounds of equipment in his backpack, including a portable digital recorder, microphones, and batteries. This particular recording session lasted only about an hour before being interrupted by an airplane.

It takes very little to intrude on nature’s sounds. A distant highway, a passing hiker, or a plane far above. And yet these sounds disturb the wildlife and change their behavior.

Biologist Kurt Fristrup, creator of the park service’s soundscape project, explains:

“Imagine you’re an owl looking for your dinner,” Fristrup said. “A three decibel increase in sound level cuts in half the area in which you could hear those sounds, he said. “So you are half as efficient in finding food, with a relatively subtle increase in background sound level.”

Prey animals, like small birds, have a harder time hearing predators as the background decibels climb, and all animals need to hear to communicate.

We’re all familiar with light pollution. And air pollution has been found even in some of the most remote places on earth. But sound pollution is also a serious and growing problem. The park service developed this sound map:



A model was developed to understand relationships between measured sound levels and variables such as climate, topography, human activity, time of day and day of year. In general, the brighter the spot, the greater the sound intensity. (Source: National Park Service)

A model was developed to understand relationships between measured sound levels and variables such as climate, topography, human activity, time of day and day of year. In general, the brighter the spot, the greater the sound intensity. (Source: National Park Service)


Fristrup is optimistic, however, that we can do better and that natural soundscapes can be preserved and restored. Awareness is the key. And the soundscape project is a beginning.

For more about the soundscape project, see National Public Radio’s “Beyond Sightseeing: You’ll Love The Sound Of America’s Best Parks” and the park service’s “Soundscape/Noise.” Also the park service’s “A Symphony of Trees, Grasses, Birds and Streams” and its link to “Enhance Your Soundscape.”



25 thoughts on “Listen up, park lovers

  1. Being somewhat hard of hearing I heard just a little; mostly all I heard was what sounded like traffics continuous roar, or water pouring over a waterfall, there was what sounded like a frog perhaps, and I got little tweet once or twice.

    1. Drat, I’m so sorry you can’t hear this better. Yes, these are the quiet sounds one hears in a peaceful place. Nothing dramatic like wolves howling or hawks screeching. Just water running, birds twittering, and the wind in the pines. The waterfall sound you hear is probably the wind. I remember the first time I visited these mountains as a child, I thought I heard a waterfall nearby and wanted to go see it. But there was no waterfall. That’s the way the wind in the pines sounds. Or at least, that’s the way I’ve always described it.

      1. Thanks PT that must be what I could hear, the wind, sometimes a hearing loss of 75-80% is a godsend but there are times when I wish I hadn’t inherited impaired hearing. Still I’m luckier than my father and his parents, they were all 100% deaf; poor souls couldn’t hear a thing.

  2. Good post, PT. I am able to identify the major cities on the light-pollution map. As for sound-pollution, it occurs to me that insects, e.g. cicadas, are the source of some of the most annoying and loudest sounds around. Had the recording been made in the evening, they might have dominated.

    1. Look again, Jim. That’s a sound map, not a light map. My fault for leaving off the heading, which I’ve now added. Cicadas, of course, would be part of the natural soundscape. I don’t hear a lot of them here, perhaps because of the dry climate. But I recall that in Oklahoma they were extraordinarily loud at times.

  3. Very interesting. My recollection from camping in the Sawtooth Wilderness (Idaho) years ago is that nighttime noise was almost completely absent. It may be becoming tiresome, but guess I’ll beat my usual drum once again. Problems with light and sound pollution are direct indicators of how overpopulation erodes the quality of life on this earth. The real solution obviously is to somehow convince one and all that it is wise to produce fewer new humans.

    1. The NPR story notes that the Great Sand Dunes are one of the quietest places you can find because the sand soaks up sound. I’d love to visit there someday. The closest I’ve come to almost total silence was at my brother’s place on the west side of the mountain away from Boulder. I was standing out on the deck and realized that no matter how hard I listened, the only sound I could hear was my own blood pumping in my ears. It was very, very strange.

      I agree wholeheartedly with you about population, and the only way we’ll control it is with education. Education is the key. Everyone needs to know about controlling population, conserving land and water and wildlife, basic sanitation, etc.

    2. There are a few countries where the average couple as a unit are producing less than two humans in the lifetimes of said couples. I think Japan is one and some of the European nations are others. I forget which.

  4. As long as homo sapiens as a majority continue to believe that we were destined to have dominion over the earth, we will continue to push aside the remainder of Life on this planet.

    1. Sad, isn’t it? Just because we’re lucky enough to be smarter than most other species doesn’t give us the right to ignore or destroy other life on the planet. It should make us knowledgable caretakers, not despotic rulers.

  5. I suspect that if we were all dropped right in the middle of that lovely place, say in the middle of the 19th century when sound and light pollution were unheard of, we’d be craning our little necks and ears in every direction possible listening for the rustling of ‘bars’ and ‘indians’ and wishing our little asses were back here where we belong… 😀

    1. Indians and “mountain men” traders were common in the area back then. Trail Ridge Road oriiginally followed their trail over this part of the Rockies, and for much of its length, still does. They’re long gone, but the bears are still there … someplace. I’ve never actually seen one in the park, but they are common in this part of the Rockes and wander into Front Range communities on a regular basis looking for easy pickins in someone’s trash can. It’s still easy in much of the park to imagine you’re back in the 19th Century, picking your way along a rough trail on a steep slope — the trail itself the only sign that other humans have been this way. It’s easy to leave the 21st Century far, far behind.

  6. I love that moraine. Everytime we visit, I find a spot and record as much as I can before someone intrudes (easier in fall – hopeless in summer) Areas of just natural sounds are becoming as rare as dark sky and unblighted views of land ( one reason I hate the growing number of wind farms since it’s not just the wind turbins, but also the line after line of powerlines lacing across)
    Delightful recording – hope the NPS will produce and market these – perfect sounds to carry with you.

    1. Aren’t you smart! It never occurred to me to record my surroundings. And yet I have the phone with me. Of course, it never occurs to me to take pictures either. I stopped taking pictures years ago when I realized nothing I shot came close to capturing the real thing. So I just decided to immerse myself in the moment and remember it that way.

      The story said the NPS has a library of 70 soundscapes so far, but I couldn’t find them. Only individual recordings like bird calls, wolves, bears, geysers in Yellowstone, etc.

      1. I looked, too. Maybe still in the works. For years I’ve tried to find high quality recording of natural places/ National Parks without luck. So I’ve made do with phone videos – lots of bubbling streams, birds, and wind in those Apsen trees videos with sounds – better than nothing if you can’t be there.
        I’m with you about pictures vs paying attention while you are there. Need some for the blog – and it’s not fiar you are so close and able to visit when you want a mountain fix HA HA

        1. The sounds can be very subtle if you aren’t listening for them specifically. The sigh of wind in the pines is so everpresent you almost think of as just mountain air. The aspens have their own fluttering sound if you’re close to them. And the streams massage the soul. I’ve never understood why that sound is so relaxing. And the wildlife … never know what you’ll hear. The pikas are so cute and cheerful (but I understand they are rapidly losing their habitat). Marmots will come right up and steal your lunch out of your backpack if you take a break and sit down. And then they’ll scold you if you don’t give them some more. Squirrels and jays will announce your presence. And bugling elk — how does an animal that big make a sound like that? The chattering chipmunks I enjoyed so much as a child are much less common now since feeding wildlife has become verboten.

          Don’t give up on the idea of living here someday. I thought it was an impossible dream too … until it wasn’t. “Life is like a box of chocolates …”

... and that's my two cents