Noise Pollution Is Pouring Into Protected Natural Areas

Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

All right, folks. We’ve had our warnings, and now it really is time to keep it down. Experts say anthropogenic (human-made) noise is drowning out natural silence and sounds in the majority of protected areas in the United States. They published their research in the journal Science.

A babbling brook or a forest full of birdsong may soothe a stressed-out human, but for the plants and animals that live there, every single sound serves a function. Studies have shown that noise pollution can mess up animals’ migration paths, stop them from mating, and lead them to make fatally bad decisions.

Parks, wilderness, and other protected areas currently make up 14 percent of our country’s landmass. But as urbanization continues, spillover from human settlement draws nearer to every open space; 80 percent of the country is within .6 miles of a road and its accompanying traffic.

To find out how far our racket has reached, researchers captured audio recordings at 492 spots across the U.S.—some protected, some not—and used computer modeling to estimate natural sound levels at each location.

The results were not encouraging. The researchers say our noise pollution doubled noise levels in more than half of protected areas. In about one-fifth of those areas, noise was increased tenfold—an increase that shrinks the audible range of a bird’s call to 10 percent of its natural reach.


Median noise exceedance—the amount that anthropogenic noise increases sound levels above the natural level—in protected area units across the contiguous United States. 

R.T. Buxton et al., Science (2017)

“We were surprised we found such high levels of noise pollution in such high amounts of protected areas,” lead author Rachel Buxton of Colorado State University (CSU) told Science.

This is bad for people, too. Counterintuitive though it may sound, tourism plays an integral role in the success of national parks and other protected spaces. But an escape to nature loses some of its appeal if all you can hear are trucks and machinery.

Senior author George Wittemyer, also of CSU, said that while these findings are troubling, it’s important to remember that the worst is not inevitable.

“Numerous noise mitigation strategies have been successfully developed and implemented,” he said in a statement. “Our work provides information to facilitate such efforts in respect to protected areas where natural sounds are integral.”

"Next time you go for a walk in the woods, pay attention to the sounds you hear—the flow of a river, wind through the trees, singing birds, bugling elk,” Buxton added. “These acoustic resources are just as magnificent as visual ones, and deserve our protection.”

10 Amazing Facts About Cherry Blossoms

iStock.com/Sean Pavone
iStock.com/Sean Pavone

Cherry blossom season is a major tourist draw for any city that’s lucky enough to grow these ornamental cherry trees. More than 1.5 million people are expected to visit Washington, D.C. this year for its National Cherry Blossom Festival (which kicks off on March 20, 2019) and Japan saw an influx of 2.6 million overseas tourists when its pretty pink flowers started to bloom in March of last year. In celebration of the arrival of spring, here are 10 things you might not know about the trees that produce such picturesque petals.

1. You'll only find cherry blossoms in a handful of countries.

Cherry trees lining a street
"Cherry Blossom Avenue" in Bonn, Germany
iStock.com/Iurii Buriak

Called sakura in Japan, the cherry blossoms of Yoshino and Kyoto are world-famous. Tourists flock to the country each spring to try their hand at a centuries-old activity called hanami, or “flower viewing.” You don’t have to fly to Japan to see them, though. In the U.S., the cherry blossoms of Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston are all beautiful in their own way. The flowers can also be viewed in many European and Asian countries, as well as Brazil and Australia in the southern hemisphere.

2. The cherry blossom capital of the world is in the state of Georgia.

A street lamp framed by cherry blossoms
iStock.com/mstroz

Believe it or not, the city of Macon in central Georgia is recognized as the “Cherry Blossom Capital of the World”—at least according to U.S. Congressional records. It’s home to 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees, while Washington, D.C. has fewer than 4000 trees. Those who organize the two cities’ respective cherry blossom festivals have engaged in some playful competition over the years. In 1987, representatives of the Macon festival sent army helmets to TV stations in D.C. “to dramatize the rivalry,” according to an article published at the time in The Record. Representatives in D.C. played it cool, with one spokesperson for the National Park Service stating, “I’m sure they have much more than we have here, but we’re still proud of our celebration.”

3. There are hundreds of cherry tree varieties.

Cherry blossoms
The blossoms of a Kanzan tree
iStock.com/Norimoto

Japan in particular is home to hundreds of types of cherry tree—possibly more than 600, by more liberal estimates. Some types bear fruit, while others don’t. The flowers of many trees change from dark pink to light pink to white throughout the different stages of blossoming, while others progress from greenish yellow to white to pink. One variety, called Kanzan, was bred to have “double blossoms”—or up to 28 petals on each flower, compared to the Yoshino tree’s five petals.

4. They don't bloom for long.

A cherry tree might only remain in bloom for one to two weeks. However, they only keep up their “peak color” for about three days, so it’s best to time your trip wisely if you’re visiting a cherry blossom destination from out of town. The timing depends on a number of factors, including location, heat, and daylight. In D.C., the florets typically start to appear in March, and peak bloom (when 70 percent of the flowers have blossomed) generally occurs in late March or early April. This year, the National Park Service predicts that peak bloom will occur from April 3 to April 6, 2019.

5. Climate change could be making them blossom earlier.

The projected peak bloom dates are right on track for 2019, but that hasn’t always been the case. Some scholars have suggested that the trees are blooming earlier and earlier as the planet gradually gets warmer. Dr. Soo-Hyung Kim, an ecophysiologist at the University of Washington who has studied the phenomenon, says that by 2080 we could expect to see cherry blossoms in D.C. as early as February.

6. You can get arrested for plucking a cherry blossom in Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms in D.C.
iStock.com/RobertDodge

Resist the urge to take a cherry blossom home with you as a souvenir. In D.C. at least, breaking off a blossom or branch is viewed as vandalism of federal property. Those who break this rule could receive a citation, or worse, be arrested. (Though usually, law enforcement officers prefer to issue warnings or small fines.) It goes without saying that it’s also illegal to climb the trees. If they sustain damage to their branches, they will never be able to grow new blossoms on that particular bough again.

7. The very first cherry trees to arrive in America were a complete disaster.

In 1909, Japan offered to send 2000 cherry trees to America as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. After all, just a few years earlier, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt had helped Japan negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Despite the good intentions, the execution was disastrous. When the trees arrived in D.C. in January 1910, the trees were weak—due to overpruning of their roots—and they were also infested with wood-boring insects. Despite attempts to save them, the trees were ultimately thrown in a pile and burned.

Everyone was pretty embarrassed about the whole ordeal, but Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki made a joke to ease some of the tension. “To be honest about it, it has been an American tradition to destroy cherry trees ever since your first president, George Washington,” he said. “So there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, you should be feeling proud.” (Washington's cherry tree story turned out to be untrue, but we digress.) Another shipment of trees was sent, and by 1912, the healthy trees were successfully planted in D.C. by then-First Lady Helen Taft.

8. The cherry trees in one Dutch municipality have proper names.

Located in the largest park in the Netherlands, all 400 cherry blossom trees have proper names. Half of them have traditional Dutch women’s names, and the other half have Japanese women’s names. The Japan Women’s Club gifted the trees in 2000, and you can now find them at Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Forest) in the Amstelveen municipality.

9. Both the blossoms and leaves are edible.

Pocky snacks
Japan Crate

In Japan, no part of the cherry blossom tree goes to waste. The preserved leaves are used as edible mochi wrappers (a rice cake filled with sweet bean paste), and a number of seasonal snacks feature sakura as a key ingredient. Sakura-infused versions of Pepsi, Coke, tea, and even Starbucks lattes are all popular drinks. You can also find two varieties of Kit Kats—sakura and roasted soy bean, and sakura sake—as well as Pocky snack sticks that taste like sakura and matcha (green tea).

So what do cherry blossoms taste like? They have a “light, flowery, slightly cherry flavor,” according to Gabe Perez, social media director at Japan Crate, a subscription box service that ships many of the aforementioned snacks, plus other Japanese products, to customers.

10. They were the inspiration behind a record-setting LEGO sculpture.

LEGOLAND Japan, a theme park in Nagoya, set a Guinness World Record in 2018 for the largest LEGO brick cherry blossom tree ever made (although we’re not sure how much competition they had). The tree stood 14 feet tall, weighed over 7000 pounds, and consisted of more than 800,000 LEGO bricks.

Why You Shouldn't Crush an Aluminum Can Before Recycling It

iStock.com/FotografiaBasica
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

Participating in your local recycling program is a great first step toward reducing waste, but tossing your old containers in the right bin is just one part of the process. To make sure your recyclable goods end up where they're supposed to be, you have to treat them right. That means resisting the urge to crush your aluminum cans, according to Lifehacker.

Stomping on an empty can may seem like a logical move: A crushed can takes up less space, which should make it easier to store and recycle. But recycling centers actually have a harder time processing cans that have been flattened.

Many recycling plants sort recyclable materials by shape. Small items tend to be marked as waste and sent to the landfill (which is why it's better to leave caps on plastic bottles when you recycle them). Flat items are usually sorted with the paper and cardboard, so when a can is crushed, it may be misidentified and end up contaminating a batch of paper items.

If you want your aluminum cans to be sent to the right place, leave them in their original 3D shape when you dispose of them. That way your local recycling center will have an easier time identifying the material. But if crushing cans has become a habit, you may be able to keep doing it without creating more waste. Some municipalities use multi-stream recycling systems which are able to recycle your cans properly no matter what shape they're in. So, if you use two separate bins for your recycling and live in a multi-stream recycling area, you can probably continue crushing cans to your heart's content.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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