Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The sound of extinction

American musician and author Bernie Krause paints a rather bleak picture of the natural world these days. He has played a large part in the development of the academic discipline of soundscape ecology and in fact coined the word biophony to mean capturing the noise made by non-human animals in their native habitats (listen to elephants and ants on NPR). Now that so many of those once pristine habitats have been compromised, disrupted by human noise or damaged by human actions, roughly half of the 4,500 hours of sound he has amassed over the past 40 years can now be considered archives. "The voices of the wild in their purest states where no [human] noise is present are splendid symphonies," says Krause, noting that there are only a few such isolated places in the world, such as the Alaskan wilderness, the far Canadian north, Siberia, and the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. He calls Hawaii the extinction capital of the world, where half of the 140 bird species have disappeared, and notes that half of the animals in Madagascar are now gone (listen to before and after recordings of a coral reef in Fiji and a meadow in California here). "A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small. The sense of desolation extends beyond mere silence. If you listen to a damaged soundscape...some voices are gone entirely, while others aggressively compete to establish a new place in the increasingly disjointed chorus," he writes in his latest book, The Great Animal Orchestra (read New York Times review here).
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