Human-caused climate change is affecting the sound of our ecosystems, says ecologist

The effects of climate change are often captured in photos and videos, but Bernie Krause is listening.

As a soundscape ecologist and founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization that archives the sounds of the natural world, Krause has been recording the sounds of habitats around the world for decades. His recordings capture the sound of flora and fauna, as well as moving water and the wind blowing through the trees.

But in recent years, he says, those soundscapes have become increasingly sparse – less varied; quieter.

The former musician began documenting the soundscapes of nature in the late 1960s for an inclined album In a wild sanctuary on the subject of ecology.

“The sounds that were there – the sounds of the stream, the sounds of a crow flying overhead and the flapping of wings – made a real impression on me. I felt a real affinity with that and I decided on the spot that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

He has since published articles on his audio research on climate change.

Fifty percent or more of my collection comes from habitats that no longer exist. They have been transformed by human effort.– Bernie Krause, Soundscape Ecologist

Krause spoke with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong on what he’s heard in recent years and what he thinks it can tell us about climate change.

Here is part of that conversation.

What can you tell about the health of an ecosystem from its sounds?

These recordings of natural soundscapes, those that consist of the collective sound that all organisms produce in a given habitat, are called biophony.

Sounds produced in the natural world are an expression of place, and they tell us a lot about those places we hear and listen to.

For example: the health of a habitat, and we judge this by the density, diversity and expression of the ways in which these sounds are communicated.

View of a mountain ridge with cloudy skies from a hiking trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in California. Krause recorded soundscapes in the park for several years, noting their changes over time. (Simone O/Shutterstock)

This biophany that you refer to, the sound is constantly changing. And when you go to a place and record and then come back and record at a later date, did you understand what was happening in those places as you went back to see and experience some of those changes?

Not at the start. I didn’t really think about it until the late 80s. I had been recording since 1968.

And most of the reason I was recording, Peter, was because I had a terrible case of [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,] and the only thing that made a difference was sitting outside and listening to natural sounds. There was no medicine, there was no therapy. Nothing really worked for me until I started recording.

I did it because it made me feel good, not because I was studying. But then I started to see that there was something going on that needed to be expressed and acknowledged. And when I learned that these habitats that I used to come back to occasionally, like Costa Rica… I started to see that I had some really good examples of these changing habitats and especially habitats very, very close to home .

You have this series of recordings from Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in California. The first is from 2004, when you first record…. What do you hear when you listen to this?

I mean the relationship between all species. I hear how they fit into the acoustic structure, just like the instruments in an orchestra. The more structure, the more definition, the healthier the habitat.

WATCH | Changing the soundscape at Sugarloaf Park from 2004 to 2015

I’m going to go straight to the recordings you did in 2015. By the time you went back to do this session, how much had changed in that particular part of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park?

It’s important to say that we were going through a terrible drought, and the drought started in 2011. So the recordings that were made in 2004 and 2009 were very healthy sounding recordings.

However, in 2014 the soundscape started to deteriorate… There were a lot of birds around, I want to tell you, but they weren’t singing. And 2015 was a silent spring. No birdsong, lots of birds around, the creek had completely dried up. There was nothing there.

When you heard this silent spring in 2015, how was it for you?

It was horrible, and it’s something I have to deal with every day because when I’m working with my archives, a lot of that material is gone now. This is why archives are so valuable.

How many other places like this are there? You’ve highlighted a handful for us here. What is the magnitude of the changes that you have documented on a global scale?

I have 5,000 hours of material that I’ve recorded since 1968 and that’s over 1,100 habitats. And what’s remarkable about this collection is that it’s really one of the only collections and one of the first collections that shows how entire habitats are disappearing.

We are not talking about individual creatures here. Fifty percent or more of my collection comes from habitats that no longer exist. They have been transformed by human effort.

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What impact do you hope recordings like yours can have for audiences in terms of raising awareness of the changes that are happening from climate change and what is happening in their world?

It’s an interesting question, because for a long time I published and wrote articles that were scientific articles and maybe five or ten people read those articles. And I was trying to find a way to get that across to a bigger mass of people.

Fortunately, in 2014 or 2015, the Fondation Cartier [pour l’Art Contemporain] in Paris approached me and asked if I wanted to start turning some of this data into works of art, large format works of art. And I created this 90-minute piece with continuous spectrograms. A spectrogram is a graphical representation of sound.

What happened is that we installed this in Paris in 2016, which was the first. We had it in Milan and London, Shanghai and Seoul, and in those five places over a million people were able to see this material. And we show the few habitats I have before and after the changes, including global warming, global warming.

It’s amazing the response we get from visitors listening to this, this material.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.