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The California Drought Is Creating A New Silent Spring

Try listening to the sounds of nature in dry California, and you’ll struggle to hear anything at all.

While the whole nation is paying plenty of attention to the human toll of the state’s ongoing drought–its worst in history, California’s wildlife is suffering far more quietly. And no one knows that better than Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the small but growing field of soundscape ecology who, since 1968, has made recordings in more than 2,000 types of habitats around the world.

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Krause lives in Glen Ellen, California, where he stores his priceless archives and runs his organization, Wild Sanctuary. In recent years, and especially in his recent book, Voices of the Wild, he has attempted to call the world’s attention to the declining diversity and richness of nature’s sounds–an often overlooked proxy for measuring the overall health of wild ecosystems.

His work has taken him around the world, from the Amazon’s rainforests to Alaska’s Glacier Bay. But Krause’s 20 years of recording near his Northern California home are what’s concerning him most lately. The clip below, shared exclusively with Co.Exist, illustrates through sound the dramatic effect of environmental degradation in one location over time.

Listen to the audio, captured at California’s Sugarloaf State Park over the last 11 years. Years of record-low rainfall and the earlier arrival of spring has, to Krause, turned the loud sounds of spring to what seems more like a winter’s quiet day.

“This year–because of the drought–we experienced what was virtually a silent spring with no birdsong for the first time in living memory–even at what would have normally been the height of the season in mid-April,” he says.

Audio recordings by Bernie Krause, courtesy of Wild Sanctuary. © 2015 Wild Sanctuary. All rights reserved.

Since 1994, Krause had been recording the same location at Sugarloaf State Park in mid-April, using the same equipment and carefully calibrated settings and protocols. The video presents four 15-second sound samples captured in 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2015.

The lower half of the spectrogram shown in the video represents the sound signature of a stream that was flowing normally in 2004 and 2009, but had run dry in more recent years. The upper half represents the vocalizations of several bird species. Krause’s recordings prior to and including 2004 all indicated similar bird density and diversity. But between 2004 and 2009, the density dropped off slightly. Krause thinks that’s due to the spring season temperatures moving in two weeks earlier on average in the area, but at least the stream is still flowing.

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But by 2014, three years into the most serious drought in 1,200 years, everything had changed. It doesn’t take an expert to hear it. And by 2015, Krause says there is even more change: the bird species have shifted. Several are just not there. Others have occupied the acoustic bandwidth formally used by the stream–providing evidence of a hypothesis that organisms seek to vocalize in otherwise unoccupied “acoustic niches.”

All of this is along the lines of Krause’s larger effort to make the richness of natural sounds more known to a variety of scientific, environmental, and cultural disciplines.

“We really need to pay attention to the ways in which the world expresses itself acoustically. It gives us a sense of place. It tells us how we’re doing in relationship to other organisms that exist in the world. And it gives us feedback about exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” he says.

USDA Flickr

Today, more than 50% of the material Krause has recorded over nearly five decades comes from sites now so badly compromised by human intervention that their habitats are either “altogether silent” or their soundscapes can’t be heard in any of their original forms. The appropriate term, borrowed from the field of medicine, is “dysphonia,” or the inability to speak. Sometimes, however, this isn’t always obvious visually. He cites one location in the Sierra Nevada mountains that he recorded both before and for many years after selective logging operations occurred there. The logging company claimed their work would not hurt the overall ecosystem of the forest, because they were leaving enough trees still standing. But his recordings tell a different story. In many years since logging occurred, the site’s sounds have never been the same.

“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures,” Krause says. “You can always frame a shot to make it look like an untouched forest, but all we have to do is listen to the soundscape and it tells a different story. The camera lies, but the ear always tells us the truth about what’s going on in the world.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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