The effects of human made noise on wildlife is nigh on impossible to accurately gauge. The range and intensity of responses exhibited by animals to our many cacophonous engagements is too varied to draw any concrete conclusions. Policy makers are paralysed to do anything, the public is unconvinced that its noisy activities can seriously affect wildlife and scientists lose faith in their ability to prove what some already know through intuition.
These are the principle conclusions from Autumn Lyn Radle’s 2007 article, “The Effect of Noise on Wildlife: A Literature Review. And what frustrating conclusions they are, the kind that compel this blogger to consider making this academic article the last he ever reads. But then, it’s not Radle’s fault. Nor is it the fault of the scientists whose largely inconclusive studies constitute the subject matter of Radle’s aggregation of largely inconclusive studies. Least of is it the animals’ fault. They can’t help inhabiting environments where countless factors dictate towards behavioural and physiological traits, making it difficult to ascertain which factor contribute towards which traits, and whether human noise is a significant one.
So we know very little about how man-made sound affects wildlife. But we do know some things. We know that man-made sound has more sources than we might initially think. As well as the obvious – recreational noise from motorboatsor holidaymakers; military noise; and commercial noise from airplane flyovers, mining operations and logging – there is also evidence that scientific research (usually with the intention of assisting wildlife) is in some cases noisy enough to pose a possible threat to some species.
We also know that noise can be hugely detrimental to humans. Look at the case of Cairo, a city where the average noise level between the hours of 7am and 9pm is 85 decibels – just louder than a freight train passing by 5 metres away. Of the city’s 7 million inhabitants, two-thrids are estimated to suffer from some sort of sleeping disorder. Indeed, the city has just opened its first sleep clinic, the first state-sanctioned one in the world.
But regardless of the current state of knowledge, knowledge isn’t necessary for action. Our reluctance to act on this issue due to a lack of concrete evidence is proof in itself of our anthropocentric worldview. If we took a view more sympathetic to the rest of the living biosphere we would, in Radle’s words, “intuitively understand that a cacophony of noise, even if not life threatening, cannot provide for a decent quality of life for any organism”. These words have a certain resonance to them. Since the advent of the Industrial Age our actions have caused sometimes irreversible damage – to our landscapes, waterways and atmosphere. In those cases, much of the damage was done before we had proof that any damage was being done. While the evidence is not concrete, intuition provides a valuable clue here. If we pay heed to it, we may be able to stop the relentless advance of man-made noise before its effects on the biosphere begin to resemble those other horrors.