A haunting sound captured by researchers could help monitor changes to Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf from afar. Extremely sensitive sensors were buried two metres under the surface to capture ‘seismic motions’. Winds blowing across the icy surface create vibrations, producing a ‘near-constant set of seismic tones’, according to the study in Geophysical Research Letters. The frequency is too low to be heard by human ears and, according to the American Geophysical Union, it was only made audible by speeding up the recording about 1,200 times
Summertime is for road trips. Atlas Obscura and All Things Considered are traveling up the West Coast, from California to Washington, in search of “hidden wonders” — unique but overlooked people and places.
It’s a little before 5:00 on a summer morning, and Matt Mikkelsen stands not so far down a trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington’s Olympic National Park. In the dense forest, dominated by massive Sitka spruce trees dripping with tangles of moss, Mikkelsen has just set up a tripod, topped not with a camera but with a disembodied black foam head.
The head is actually an unusual microphone — which Mikkelsen lovingly refers to as “Fritz” — and he is using it to record the dawn chorus, the time when the forest wakes, and the chirps and hiccups of the night give way to the trilling, ecstatic reveille of the rain forest’s birds. (To fully experience what this sounds like, listen to the audio version of this story — available above — using earbuds.)
Mikkelsen, an audio technician and recording specialist, works with a nonprofit called One Square Inch of Silence, founded by his mentor, audio ecologist Gordon Hempton. Its purpose is to promote the preservation of quiet places — that is, places without human-made sounds.
Protecting wilderness, they argue, means more than guarding against development and industry, but also keeping spaces free of noise pollution — including the sound of aircraft far overhead — that can affect the people who visit these places and the wildlife that calls them home.
In 2005, when Hempton founded One Square Inch of Silence, he designated a spot, a few miles up the Hoh River Trail into the rain forest, the quietest place in the U.S. and marked it with a small, red stone.
Mikkelsen, 24, is tall and slim, with a long auburn beard. His friends call him “Sasquatch,” but that doesn’t seem to suit his gentle, quiet demeanor.
“Even though protecting 1 square inch seems like a very small, insignificant amount of space,” he explains, “due to the nature of sound and silence, it’s preserving this whole ecosystem.”
If that inch stays quiet, that means that the entire valley, and miles around it, will be similarly intact and free of intrusive noise. Hempton defines a naturally quiet place as one where there are 15 minutes of non-human-made sound. He estimates that there are fewer than 10 such places in the U.S.
As Mikkelsen adjusts the sensitivity of his recording, the dawn chorus seems to explode around the valley.
“In a forest like this, it’s so dense, I can only see maybe 50 yards in one direction, if you’re lucky,” he says. “But I can hear for miles.”
That sense, of how far you can hear, is known as your auditory horizon, and much of the time — indoors or in a city, for example — it doesn’t extend very far. But in the forest, with eyes closed and a little focus, it sprawls.
“In a place like this your auditory horizon isn’t just 1 or 2 miles,” he says. “You can hear everything that’s happening in this valley. … It’s like we’re listening to 5 miles or 10 miles around us right now. It’s crazy.”
Mikkelsen then offers headphones connected to Fritz, so visitors can hear what Fritz’s hypersensitive ears are picking up. The sensation is more than mere amplification, because you can still perceive the direction and distance of each twitter and rustle, thanks to Fritz’s ears.
“When you listen to it through a microphone system like this,” he says, “you all of a sudden realize that you’re listening to hundreds, if not thousands, of birds.”
It’s like your own hearing, enhanced to an impossibly intimate level.
But since One Square Inch of Silence was established, the Hoh Rain Forest has gotten louder, through increased air traffic and the testing of loud Navy jets nearby.
Now, Hempton and Mikkelsen are planning to make One Square Inch part of a larger effort to identify, designate and protect quiet places like it around the world.
“Just the fact that this place exists is enough to give me hope for the world,” Mikkelsen says, softly. “And I think that’s the reason why we conserve wilderness in the first place.”
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor of Atlas Obscura.
Maureen Pao edited the Web story. Dylan Thuras, a founder of Atlas Obscura, Matt Ozug, Renita Jablonski and Michael May reported, produced and edited the audio story.
Touching tribute from Magallanes University to Cristina Calderon, the representative of the Yagan people
For the 53rd birthday of the Magallanes University(UMAG), the regional department of high studies rendered this thursday a rightful homage to Cristina Calderón, National Living Treasure of yagán people, and representative of the « canoera » culture (nomadic people of the south Magellan Strait channels) of the extreme south of Chile.
The highest regional authority congratulate the university for this “rightful tribute” attributed to Cristina Calderón. “It is in fact what we have to do as a community. We are lucky to have Cristina with us. We are really pleased that she has been able to come with her daughter and has been able to receive our displays of affection. We all agree that this tribute we rendered is important to her, recognized National Living Treasure by the UNESCO.”, the intendant Flies stated.
The chief of the Regional Government considers as a real gift to give Cristina Calderon the possibility to express herself in her’s mother tongue. In this sense, and to preserve the yagán language, Flies announced that he had started to solicit the linguist Oscar Aguilera, that who realised great works about the kawésqar language, to make, with Calderon, a similar work for the benefit of the safeguarding of this language.
For his part, the UMAG rector, Juan Oyarzo, got very emotional at the end of the ceremony. “I’m very touched to have had the opportunity to lead this event and to have been able to say a few words to “la abuela” Cristina this afternoon”, Oyarzo said and added “It’s good to pay these tributes as long as she’s alive. But we also have a sense of guilt from an era in which people were blind to the consequences of their acts against Yagan people. We are now seeing the impacts : an ethnic group and a language are at the point of disappearing”.
“I am full of emotion because, although late in coming, we have reached to pay this tribute,but especially because we are an inclusive university that pretend to link all localities like Puerto Williams, Puerto Natales and Porvenir, where we also have university centres.”, the rector commented. He announced that he committed himself, as an academic, to support the intentions of a Cristina’s niece, also present to this tribute and who whishes to study the Pedagogy in Early Education.
The authorities undertake to ensure the governance of the possibility, for Cristina Calderón, to teach her language and thus to preserve and diffuse a part of her culture with the rest of the Magellanic community.