Humans May Not Realize How Much Damage Their Noise is Doing to Wildlife

Noise pollution has a surprising effect on the environment.
••• Sina Ettmer / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

Not to sound like your crotchety old gramps telling you to turn down the music, but: noise can be bad.

It’s also everywhere. From airplanes flying, truck horns honking, farm tractors whirring, TVs blaring, kitchen appliances grinding, car radios playing, construction tools grinding, above-ground subway tracks rattling, music blasting in your favorite clothes store – it’s all noise pollution, and it’s so real (and maddening) that some people travel hours just to spend time in a room so quiet you can hear your bones move.

We’ve known for a long time that noise pollution can have negative health effects on humans and some animals. One study found that exposure to noises over 85 decibels can cause damage, and that a whopping 25% of American adults has shown signs of noise-induced hearing loss.

It gets to animals and plants, too. Seals in the UK are going deaf from ship noises, and noise pollution that disrupts birds’ pollination patterns has the potential to upend ecosystems from the bottom up.

Previous studies that looked at noise pollution’s effect on wildlife were more narrowly focused. But now, the authors of a sweeping new study, or meta-analysis, are saying that manmade noise should be treated as a “major global pollutant.”

Why is it So Bad?

For one, the authors said they didn’t expect to see effects of noise pollution over such a wide range of animals. They took a look at 108 previous studies on animals from “little insects to large marine animals such as whales,” and concluded that it’s the majority of species – not just some UK seals or a handful of hummingbirds – that respond to the noises humans have put into their environments.

Of course, animals all react differently to onslaughts of noise, depending on the ways that noise plays a role in their lives. Remember that animals can’t text or email the same way you can, so they’re reliant on noise to get warnings about predators or send out calls to attract mates. Marine animals use echolocation to find each other.

When the noises that they’re listening for or putting out there get muffled by ambient noise, the results can throw ecosystems for a total loop.

Adapting to the (Noisy) World Around Them

But if there’s one thing we know about animals, it’s that they’re remarkable at adapting to change in their environments. Those adaptations are complex, though. It’s not like an animal can simply flip a switch to adapt and all is perfect.

For instance, one study showed that one species of male frogs have learned to put out higher-pitched mating calls when there’s a lot of traffic noise around them. Great! They adapted, right? Well, they did, but maybe not in a beneficial way – researchers found that the female frogs tended to go for the lower-pitched mating calls, which they associated with frogs that were larger. If there aren’t enough gal frogs attracted to the guy frogs who’ve learned to adapt to their environments, it could mean bad news for the population in the long term.

Another example is birds – many have learned how to steer clear of areas they deem too noisy. But in turn, their pollination or migration habits differ or they leave areas all together, threatening the diversity and health of certain ecosystems that rely on them spreading both their seeds and their offspring.

It’s a problem without any clear solution. Or rather, there’s just one, giant solution, one that makes us sound like the cranky granny again – just turn down that noise, and support the policy initiatives that are making efforts to do just that.

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