According to an acoustic ecologist who has spent 30 years looking (or listening, as the case may be), the country’s quietest spot is in a corner of Washington State.
During the closure of airspace in the days following 9/11, the lack of sky noise in New York City was profound. I never knew just how loud the constant hum of helicopters and airplanes was until they stopped crisscrossing the sky, it was shocking – the eerie quiet from above added to a city shaken to its core was unforgettable. But while the sky is loud, it’s not just the flying machines that make for the special audio life of a city. In New York, we’ve got noise. We’ve got cars and trains and busses. Emergency vehicles with strident sirens that whine with unapologetic fury. We’ve got bulldozers, air compressors, dump trucks, jackhammers, pavement breakers, chainsaws, boilers, air-conditioners, fans, and vacuum cleaners. We’ve got loud music, we’ve got parties, we’ve got noisy New Yorkers complaining about the noise. And it makes urban denizens like me wonder what it would be like to spend time in a place entirely free of man-made sounds.
Many of you may live close enough to expanses of nature to have a sense of quiet – but few places are completely immune. Air traffic is hard to escape, and by some accounts, noise pollution affects more than 88 percent of the contiguous United States.
All of this provides the (noisy) backdrop for Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who has spent more than 30 years studying the quietest places in the country – not places free of sound, but free of man-made noises. His search has brought him to the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park in Washington State, where he says the quietest square inch of nature can be found … on top of a moss-covered log at 47° 51.959N, 123° 52.221W to be exact. And now Hempton’s mission is to protect that one square inch of silence.
"If nothing is done to preserve and protect this quiet place from human noise intrusions, natural quiet may be non-existent in our world in the next 10 years," says Hempton.
If you’re wondering how important it is to protect a postage-stamp size area, Hempton explains that man-made noises can be heard from 20 miles away. So in fact, by protecting an inch, he says, it’s really preserving 1,000 square miles of silence. He is working on creating a law to protect the area from air traffic overhead. While other national parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Hawaii Volcanoes have roads and air tourism, Olympic National Park is not yet sullied to the same degree.
Noise may be one of the more abstract types of pollution; but in Hempton's eyes its importance shouldn't be underestimated. From his site:
Silence is a part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people. Close your eyes and listen for only a few seconds to the world you live in, and you will hear this lack of true quiet, of silence. Refrigerators, air conditioning systems, and airplanes are a few of the things that have become part of the ambient sound and prevent us from listening to the natural sounds of our environment. It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may from it. By listening to natural silence, we feel connected to the land, to our evolutionary past, and to ourselves. One Square Inch of Silence is in danger, unprotected by policies of the National Park Service, or supported by adequate laws. Our hope is that by listening to natural silence, it will help people to become true listeners to their environment, and help us protect one of the most important and endangered resources on the planet, silence.
Silence is golden. And while it is suffering as a resource, thankfully it's a renewable one. Watch Hempton talk about silence and the one-square inch here:
Learn more about the project at One Square Inch.