May 17 and 18, 2021
The concept of Anthropocene, popularized in 2000 by Paul Crutzen (Nobel laureate in Chemistry, 1995), has been an influential framework to understand environmental issues as symptoms of a new geological epoch – a period fundamentally marked by the material presence of human beings on Earth. Commonly mentioned issues related to the Anthropocene include changes in the water cycle, acidiﬁcation of oceans, and extreme meteorological phenomena. Noise, on the other hand, is only rarely mentioned. In a 2011 report, the World Health Organization/Europe announced that the disease burden caused by environmental noise was second only to air pollution. According to the study, at least one million healthy life years were lost every year from trafﬁc-related noise in Western Europe. But noise pollution affects other living organisms as well: the dramatic increase in transportation networks and natural resource extraction makes noise a problem of planetary proportions. Grinding away (day and night through air, land, and sea), transportation and resource extraction make up the soundscape of the Anthropocene.
This virtual conference brought together artists and scholars from diverse academic fields to highlight how noise can provide a dynamic, polyphonic, and multi-species understanding of our environment.
The event was organized by me and Ana Širović (Department of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University Galveston), with funding from the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research.
May 17, 10 am−12 pm (CST): On Land
“Too much noise goin’ on”: Listening to the World Soundscape Project’s Vancouver archive
Jonathan Prior (Cardiff University)
Much has been made of the normative intentions of the WSP, particularly through critiques of the ways in which urban ‘noise’ and rural ‘tranquillity’ were seemingly constructed within their writing, but there has been little in the way of direct engagements with the vast audio archives produced and collated by the WSP. This presentation delves into the first archival project embarked upon by the WSP, in which members of the team catalogued the sounds of Greater Vancouver between September 1972 and July 1973 through field recording. Through a listening and reading of this archive, I will consider the ways in which noise was conceptualized, documented, and discussed by members of the WSP. From this, I set out a typology of noise, examine the broader context in which the WSP were operating and the modes by which they engaged with Vancouver’s sounds, and ultimately demonstrate that noise holds an ambiguous position within the Vancouver archive.
Atmospheric Listening: From Noise Pollution to Climate Change
Marina Peterson (University of Texas at Austin)
Newly designated as pollution in the 1960s, noise shifts from “nuisance” to a dispersed, undefined, and atmospheric condition. Noise pollution echoes and amplifies environmental imaginaries of its time while prefiguring a logic of climate change. This coalesces around noise’s atmospheric qualities: emergent in and through perception, it is at once ephemeral and indeterminate. Noise prepares us for the unwanted, undesirable, and unpleasant sensations of climate change—an atmosphere becoming too hot for human habitation, in which the comforts of contemporary life are potentially lost. At the same time, a generalized concept of climate echoes the pervasive and systemic nature of noise pollution. Like noise, climate change is inherently uncertain and indefinite. Yet the spatiotemporal scale of noise limits its perdurance as a concern both in itself and for environmental imaginaries. This has consequences not only for the parameters of “noise” that count as noise pollution but for the import of the category and its relation to environmental thought. If noise pollution had been based on something like “whistlers,” it might have taken a hemispheric scale. Instead, noise pollution falls away: there is no place for it in a totalizing rubric of climate change.
Analysis of Wind Farm Noise in the Xavier Community, Western Coastline of Ceará State, Brazil
Adryane Gorayeb (Federal University of Ceará), Christian Brannstrom (Texas A&M University), Lígia de Nazaré Aguiar Silva, and Nicolly dos Santos Leite (Federal University of Ceará)
Brazil is a leader in the Global South in terms of rapid installation of wind power capacity, which has been built near host communities that are politically and economically marginalized, giving rise to numerous forms of subtle contention and overt opposition. Knowledge is increasing with regards to land-tenure conflicts, licensing fraud, and opinions of host communities, but sound impacts from wind turbines in Brazil are poorly known in comparison with North American and European contexts. Here we quantitatively investigate noise levels and qualitatively analyze how residents of the community of Xavier, comprised mainly of artisanal fishers, in western Ceará state perceive the noise of the turbines of a wind farm installed only 250m away from the nearest residence.
Measurement of sound levels determined that noise levels between 34 and 57.2 dB(A) by day and 46.2 and 60.4 at night, which are greater than recommendations of the Brazilian government (40 dB and 35 dB, respectively). Survey data obtained for the host community (n=78) indicated that approximately 20% of respondents experienced discomfort from turbine noise or difficulty adjusting to noise, although one-third indicated that they worried about human health impacts from wind turbines. Qualitative data suggest that opponents of wind farms have negative reactions to noise from turbines. Future research on noise from wind farms in Brazil should apply rigorous methodologies that allow for international comparisons. Wind farm operators should measure noise levels before and during the construction of the wind farm and establish a measurement routine during operation to identify irregularities and make comparisons to pre-wind farm noise levels.
May 17, 1 pm−3 pm (CST): At Sea
Ocean ambient sound trends across the Northern hemisphere
Ana Širović (Texas A&M University Galveston)
Oceans had lower sound levels at low frequencies, likely corresponding to lower levels of shipping traffic across those areas. Long-term time series from a site in the eastern North Pacific showed decrease in low frequency ambient sound in 2009-10 relative to 2004, presumably the result of decrease in worldwide shipping during the global recession. However, the trends since then have been variable and harder to interpret in the light of shipping trends.
At most monitored locations there was a strong seasonal contribution to ambient sound from marine mammal calls, most commonly blue and fin whales, but also humpback whales. Understanding of ambient sound trends is important for developing baselines on the levels of noise marine animals may be exposed and used to in their environment. Additionally, it allows placing any increases in noise and experiments on noise impacts into appropriate context of ocean ambient sound.
Sonic Mutations and Logistics on the Tejo Estuary
Margarida Mendes (Goldsmiths University of London)
In this presentation, I analyze the Tejo estuary as a contested space where a series of transport and construction projects are creating ecological controversies and increased sonic baselines. The Tejo estuary and Natural Reserve is surrounded by commercial exploration projects that expand its potential as a logistical hub, connecting several ports in Portugal. Alongside it projects such as a new airport and floating city are planned to answer to the recent tourism boom in the city of Lisbon, leading to significant alterations of the sonic landscape. Coastal areas and other aquatic infrastructures are being designed in alliance with the blue economy agenda and the 2030 sustainable development goals, with contradictory applications of sustainable politics.
I draw parallels with socio-economic and ecological conflicts that have taken place in recent years, with a focus on migratory work in the estuary, increased cruise traffic, or the 2017 Portuguese fires. To do so, I introduce different activist movements and scientific research studies developing awareness campaigns in the area, as well as my practice as a sound artist, and educator.
Are diving birds tuning in to the underwater soundscape?
Magnus Wahlberg (University of Southern Denmark)
During the past decades, much has been learned about how fish and marine mammals hear, and how they react to and make use of sound while diving for fish. Many species of fish, seals and whales react to human-made sound, sometimes causing them harm. Much less is known about how marine birds hear, and how they react to and exploit underwater sound cues. For the past years, we studied the hearing abilities and reaction to underwater sound in fish-hunting species such as cormorants, murres and penguins. Cormorants were found to have acute hearing abilities under water, and both gentoo penguins and common murres reacted to under water noise bursts of moderate sound intensities. This indicates that many species of marine birds can perceive underwater sound and react adequately to it. What underwater sound cues would be important for marine birds to listen in to while diving, and how vulnerable would marine birds be when exposed to different kinds of human underwater sounds?
May 18, 10 am−12 pm (CST): Hidden Sounds
The ecological significance of the noise
Almo Farina (Urbino University) and Timothy C. Mullet (Kenai Fjords National Park, U.S. National Park Service, Alaska)
Humans have categorized unwanted sounds in the environment as noise. As such, noise is typically associated with negative human and ecological values, especially when derived from an anthropogenic source. Although evidence has confirmed that anthropogenic noise has negative impacts on animal behavior and animal communication, noise is often dismissed in ecoacoustics as an outside factor of acoustic habitats rather than an integrated sonic component of their ecological dynamics. Yet, the proliferation and extent of anthropogenic noise in the Biosphere are unavoidable.
Conversely, “background noise” classified as geophonies (rain, wind, water), is a significant component of environmental acoustic studies. In fact, the geophonies have very important sonic implications to the communication, behaviors, occupancy, and evolution of soniferous species. Even though these sounds are seemingly ever-present in ecoacoustics and bioacoustics studies, very little work has addressed the role of noise in ecological processes. New techniques to process large data sets and separate geophonies within recordings using ecoacoustic metrics like the Acoustic Complexity Indices open new possibilities to understand the ecology of geophonies in the context of their sonoscapes.
Ecological cadences: the city as a sonic refugium
Sandra Jasper (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
This presentation shifts the focus from sustained work on cities as sites of noise to explore how urban wastelands can serve as ‘sonic refugia’; breathing spaces from the sensorial intensities of urban life. Urban ecological research has drawn our attention to the presence of nature in abandoned spaces. Former railway yards, decommissioned airports, and other technological relics provide the substrate for new ecological assemblages. At the same time, these abandoned ecologies have particular ambient qualities that speak to the corporeal experience of urban space. Drawing on a range of historical and contemporary examples from Berlin, the presentation examines the sonic qualities and cultures of urban wastelands.
Marcus Meader (Zurich University of the Arts)
Soil mostly presents itself to us as a diverse surface, the interior of which remains hidden from us. We cannot see the manifold organisms and life processes present in soils, but we may hear them if we listen more closely. Soil animals use the substrate as communication medium and form a complex soundscape. Land use and land management as well es climate change may have a big impact on the soil soundscape – the acoustic complexity of a local soil animal community can serve as indicator of a functioning soil ecosystem. In the Sounding Soil project, we implement and apply ecoacoustic methods to investigate the spatial and temporal dynamics in soil biodiversity and community composition.
Dr. Brannstrom’s research focuses on social and political aspects of renewable energy and unconventional fossil fuels in Texas. He also studies geographical dimensions of wind-power expansion in Brazil, where he has partnered with geographers at the Universidade Federal do Ceará. He regularly hosts visiting scholars interested in theoretical and empirical dimensions of environmental governance. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Texas Sea Grant, the TAMU Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, and Brazilian funding agencies.
Dr. Farina is professor of ecology in the Department of Pure and Applied Sciences at the University of Urbino. He has investigated the soundscape of birds as an energetic, informative dimension utilized by these species to maintain contact with vital resources. Farina is working on the development of new metrics (Acoustic Complexity Index, ACI) to evaluate the complexity of bird sounds inside communities, developing a new theory on ecoacoustic events.
Dr. Gorayeb is an Associate Professor of the Department of Geography of the Federal University of Ceará (UFC-Brazil), Coordinator of the Laboratory of GIS and Participatory Cartography and Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Geography of UFC.
Sandra Jasper is Assistant Professor for Geography of Gender in Human-Environment-Systems at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research interests are in urban nature, soundscapes, and feminist theory. She is co-editor of The Botanical City (jovis, 2020) and co-author and co-producer of the documentary film Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin (2017, UK/Germany, 72 mins). She is currently completing her first monograph on the experimental spaces of West Berlin for which she received a Graham Foundation grant.
Marcus Maeder is a researcher at the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology of the Zurich University of the Arts. His fields of activity lie in ecoacoustics, data sonification, and artistic investigations of ecological processes and phenomena that are related to climate change and global warming. Maeder studied Fine Arts in Lucerne, Philosophy in Hagen, and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Environmental Systems Sciences at ETH Zurich.
Margarida Mendes‘s research explores the overlap between cybernetics, ecology and experimental film, investigating the dynamic transformations of the environment and its impact on societal structures and cultural production. She is a consultant for environmental NGOs working on marine policy and deep sea mining and has directed several educational platforms. She is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Visual Cultures Department, Goldsmiths University of London with the project “Deep Sea Imaginings” and is a frequent collaborator of the online channel for exploratory video and documentary reporting Inhabitants.
Dr. Timothy Mullet is the Ecologist for Kenai Fjords National Park. Dr. Mullet has focused his work in ecoacoustics for over 10 years with an emphasis on understanding ecological patterns and the impacts of anthropogenic noise on Alaska’s wilderness. His published works range from mapping soundscapes and noise in south-central Alaska to the award-winning Acoustic Habitat Hypothesis. He lives happily nestled among the coastal mountains in Seward, Alaska with his wife Amanda.
Marina Peterson is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work traces modalities of matter, sensory attunements, and emergent socialities, exploring diverse and innovative ways of encountering and presenting the ethnographic. Her recently published book, Atmospheric Noise: The Indefinite Urbanism of Los Angeles (2021, Duke UP), engages mobilizations around airport noise to address ways in which noise amplifies modes of sensing and making sense of the atmospheric.
Dr. Jonathan Prior is a lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University. His research and publications take an interdisciplinary approach, spanning environmental philosophy, sound studies, and landscape research. His first book, Between Nature and Culture: The Aesthetics of Modified Environments, co-authored with Emily Brady and Isis Brook, was published in 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield.
Dr. Širović holds a BA in creative studies with biology emphasis from the University of California Santa Barbara and a PhD in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. After her PhD, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Dr. David Demer at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Subsequently, she spent two and a half years as marine biology faculty at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska, before returning to Scripps where she spent eight years as a Research Oceanographer at the Marine Physical Lab. She joined TAMUG in 2018.
Magnus Wahlberg is daily leader and associate professor at the Marine Biological Research Center, University of Southern Denmark. He studies hearing and sound production of aquatic animals, such as fish, marine birds, seals and whales. He both studies specimen in captivity as well as wild animals, using a range of methods such as psychophysics, playback, drone and hydrophone array recordings. His work is supported by Danish council for independent research | Natural Sciences, Carlsberg Foundation, the European Union Horizon 2020 program, the Office of Naval Research, and Living Marine Resources.