Day 6

Human-made climate change is affecting the sound of our ecosystems, says ecologist

As a soundscape ecologist, Bernie Krause has been recording the sounds of habitats around the world for decades. His recordings capture the noise of flora and fauna, and of moving water and wind blowing through trees. But in recent years, those soundscapes have become increasingly sparse.

Bernie Krause began recording habitat soundscapes in the 1960s

Bernie Krause is a soundscape ecologist, and has been recording audio of habitats around the world for decades. (Submitted by Bernie Krause)

The effects of climate change are often captured in photos and video, but Bernie Krause is listening for it.

As a soundscape ecologist and founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization that archives sounds from the natural world, Krause has been recording the sounds of habitats around the world for decades. His recordings capture the noise of flora and fauna, and of moving water and wind blowing through trees. 

But in recent years, he says those soundscapes have become increasingly sparse — less varied; quieter.

The former musician first began documenting nature soundscapes in the late 1960s for an album tilted In a Wild Sanctuary on the theme of ecology.

"The sounds that were there — the sounds of the stream, the sounds of a raven flying over and the wing beats — made a real impression on me. I felt a real affinity to it and decided right then and there that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," he said.

He has since published papers on his audio-based research into climate change.

Fifty per cent or more of my collection comes from habitats that no longer exist. They've been transformed by human endeavour.- Bernie Krause, soundscape ecologist

Krause spoke with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong about what he's heard in recent years, and what he believes it can tell us about the changing climate.

Here is part of that conversation.

What can you tell about the health of an ecosystem from its sounds?

These recordings of natural soundscapes, the ones that are made up of the collective sound that all organisms produce in a given habitat is called a biophony. 

The sounds produced in the natural world are an expression of place, and they're telling us a lot of things about these places that we're hearing and listening to. 

For instance: how healthy a habitat is, and we judge that by the density and diversity and expression of the ways in which these sounds are communicated.

View of a mountain ridge with cloudy sky from a hiking trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in California. Krause recorded soundscapes in the park over several years, noting the changes in them as time progressed. (Simone O/Shutterstock)

That biophany that you refer to, the sound is always changing. And as you go to a place and record and then go back and record at a later date, did you understand what was happening in these places as you're going back to see and to experience some of that change?

Not at first. I didn't really think about it much until the late '80s. I'd been recording since 1968. 

And most of the reason that I was recording, Peter, was because I have a terrible case of [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,] and the only thing that made a difference was sitting outside and listening to natural sounds. There was no medication, there was no therapy. Nothing really worked for me until I began recording. 

I was doing it because it made me feel good, not because I was doing studies. But then I began to see that there was something happening that needed to be expressed and recognized. And when I learned that these habitats that I would go back to occasionally, like Costa Rica … I began to see that I had some really good examples of those habitats that were changing and in particular ones very, very close to home.

You have this series of recordings from Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in California. The first one is in 2004, when you're first there recording…. What do you hear when you listen to this? 

I hear the relationship between all of the species. I hear the way that they fit into the acoustic structure, just like instruments in an orchestra. The more structure there is, the more definition there is, the healthier the habitat is.

WATCH | Change in soundscape at Sugarloaf Park from 2004 to 2015

I'm going to skip ahead to the recordings you made in 2015. By the time you went back to do that session, how much had changed in that particular part of Sugar Sugarloaf Ridge State Park? 

It's important to say that we were going through a terrible drought period, and the drought started in 2011. So the recordings that were made in 2004 and 2009 were very healthy sounding recordings. 

However, in 2014, the soundscape began to fall off.... There were lots of birds around, I want to tell you, but they weren't singing. And in 2015, it was a silent spring. No birds singing, lots of birds around, the stream had completely dried up. There was just nothing there.

When you heard that silent spring in 2015, what was that like for you?

It was horrifying, and it's something that I have to deal with every day because when I'm working with my archive, a lot of that material is gone now. That's why the archive is so valuable.

How many other places are there like this? You've highlighted a handful for us here. How widespread are the changes that you've documented globally? 

I've got 5,000 hours of material that I've recorded since 1968 and it's over 1,100 habitats. And what's remarkable about this collection is it's really one of the only collections and one of the first collections that shows the ways in which whole habitats become extinct. 

We're not talking about individual creatures here. Fifty per cent or more of my collection comes from habitats that no longer exist. They've been transformed by human endeavour. 

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What impact do you hope recordings like yours can have for the public in terms of that awareness of the changes that are happening of climate change and what's happening in their world?

It's an interesting question, because for a long time I was publishing and writing papers that were scientific papers and maybe five or 10 people would read these articles. And I was trying to find a way to get this across to a larger mass of people. 

Luckily, in 2014 or '15, the Fondation Cartier [pour l'Art Contemporain] in Paris approached me and asked me if I wanted to begin to transform some of this data into works of fine art, large format pieces of fine art. And I created this piece that's 90 minutes long with streaming spectrograms. A spectrogram is a graphic illustration of sound.

What happened was we installed that in Paris in 2016, which was the premiere. We had it in Milan and London, Shanghai and Seoul, and in those five venues, over a million people were able to see this material. And we show the few habitats that I do have before and after changes took place, including global warming, global heating. 

It's amazing the response that we've got from visitors listening to this, this material. 

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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