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Coronavirus Lockdown Gives Animals A Rare Break from Noise Pollution

The COVID-19 lockdown could become an unprecedented natural experiment in noise pollution. Some of the world’s most vocal animals — birds and whales — might already be benefiting from a quieter environment.

While a drop in transportation during the coronavirus lockdowns has led to lower pollution levels across the world, the slowdown in traffic has also lowered another big polluter: noise.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), noise pollution affects over 100 million people across Europe and, in Western Europe alone, road traffic accounts for premature deaths equivalent to the loss of roughly “1.6 million healthy years of life.” 

Take the disturbance to human health out of the equation, and noise remains a big source of pollution for the other inhabitants of the planet as well, namely, animals. 

But how much have animals in countries on lockdown really benefited from the drop in noise levels? Turns out, that’s a very difficult question to answer.

Birds will benefit the most

Birds — by far the most visible animals found in cities, and the most vocal — stand to be among the biggest beneficiaries of quieter streets and parks. 

The signals birds send each other through song is a means of survival. Without the ability to sing, hear and be heard, birds would have a difficult time finding a mate or defending their territory from predators.  

There are reports of seeing more birds during the lockdown. Ornithologists say this is due to increased awareness of people’s surroundings while at home

Human activity influences bird behavior, even prompting them to communicate at less ‘busy’ times of day

The swift rise of human-made noise — also known as anthropogenic noise — over the past century has made this harder for birds. 

Just like humans who have to speak up in a loud setting, birds, too, have to sing louder to communicate properly in today’s noisy world, according to ornithologist Henrik Brumm, who heads the research group for the communication and social behavior of birds at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology near Munich.

“This happens really fast,” Brumm told DW. “We found out that it takes roughly 300 milliseconds, so less than 1 second, for birds to readjust when the level of noise rises. So, when their surroundings become louder, they sing louder, too.”

Are birds getting quieter? Maybe.

Birds are already known to sing more quietly in the early morning hours of the weekends, says Brumm. The reason: there’s less traffic to compete with. 

With Europe on lockdown, Germany for its part, has seen passenger air travel slashed by over 90%. Moreover, car traffic has dropped by more than 50% and trains are running at less 25% their usual rates.

A recent study from the Max Planck Institute also suggests that chronic traffic noise can have a negative effect on embryo mortality and growth in zebra finches. This, in turn, could mean that the current lockdowns coinciding with mating season could lead to not only more, but also healthier hatchlings. That is, as long as their parents choose a spot that’s still safe from humans after the lockdown ends.

Though it’s difficult to speculate without real-time data, Brumm says, it stands to reason that the current period of quiet could mean birds might be singing more softly than usual, which would already be a huge benefit.

At land or sea, noise is bad news for animals

Birds aren’t the only animals that stand to benefit from less noise. According to a recent study published in the journal Biology Letters, noise pollution affects any number of creatures ranging from frogs, to shrimp, to fish, mammals, mussels and snakes.

In fact, another habitat garnering more and more attention for noise pollution is the ocean. As bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark described it in with Yale’s environmental magazine, the din from oil and gas activity, for example, is filling entire ocean basins with “one big storm of noise.”

While research on noise pollution and marine life, just like with ornithology, is in its early stages, a landmark study conducted in the days after 9/11 found that less shipping traffic seemed to make whales calmer.

Examining the feces of right whales — a species of baleen whale that can reach 15 meters in length and weigh up to 70 tons — researchers found that fewer ships in the waters along the US-Canadian coast correlated with lower stress hormones.

The noise levels from shipping traffic, whose 20–200 Hz hum disturbs sea life despite being a low frequency, decreased by 6 decibels, with a significant reduction below 150Hz .

An unprecedented time for researchers

Just like ornithologists, marine life researchers have also found correlations between noise and interruptions in behaviors like foraging and mating. Whales, like birds, also “mask.” That is to say, they sing louder to be heard over noise disturbances, be they high or low frequency sounds.

“It’s really a huge footprint that these activities have in the ocean,” according to Nathan Merchant, an expert on noise and bioacoustics at the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS).

Source: https://www.dw.com/

And the sources of noise pollution — ranging from shipping, to wind farms, to the sequence of powerful blasts from seismic air gun tests used to locate oil and gas deposits in the ocean deep — are even harder to escape in the ocean than on land.

“It has a lot to do with how sound travels under water. Sound can travel much further and much faster than in air,” Merchant told DW.

Instruments off the coast of North America, for example, can detect seismic air gun testing as far away as the Brazilian coast.

With many cruises suspended, oil freighter traffic impacted by an oil price crash and rig activity being run by skeleton crews to curb the spread of COVID-19, marine biologists could potentially find a treasure trove of data once they’re allowed to go back into the field. 

“We have underwater noise recorders at sea as we speak, but they aren’t cabled to land. So, we’ll find out when get out on a ship in several months’ time and get the data back,” Merchant said. 

The more interesting question by that point might be how marine life responds to a sudden reintroduction of the human cacophony after an unexpected period of rest.

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Human Hearing

Binaural hearing allows for localizing the source of the sound, suppressing noise, example to better understand speech. To localize sound there is an important aspect of auditory perception that allows us to adjust to the room, namely spatial hearing. There are two processes in localizing sounds in humans, monaural cues and different cues.

  • Monaural Cues

Monaural cues are how each ear translates the captured sound signal. Monaural cues are the result of a convolution of sound sources with head-related transfer function (HRTF) impulses. Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTFs) is a form of transformation of sound wave propagation from the source to the ear or Head-Related Impulse Response (HRIR). HRTF is also defined as a form of modification of a sound from a certain direction that reaches the ear. This transformation involves diffraction and reflection from the anatomy of the ear. HRTF also depends on the location of the sound source relative to the listener so that it can determine the sound source.

  • Difference Cues

Difference cues are how the difference between two ears translates to sound signals. These differences cues contain information on International Time Difference (ITD) and Interaural Level Difference (ILD). ITD is the difference in the arrival time of the left and right ear sound waves while ILD is the difference in pressure level between the left and right ears. Based on Duplex Theory, ITD values ​​are used for localizing sounds at low frequencies, which is below 1.5 kHz while ILD is used for localizing sounds at high frequencies, which is above 1.5 kHz. Environmental sounds are in the range of low frequency and high frequency so that the human auditory system uses ITD and ILD.

The basic principles in ITD are illustrated in Figure 1

Figure 1 Interaural Time Difference (ITD) principal

When the sound source is sound waves with low frequency, the propagation of sound waves will reach both ears without decreasing the sound pressure level. This is because the wavelength of sound is smaller than the dimensions of the head. However, there is a time difference received between the two ears. Therefore, sound waves at low frequencies are related to ITD.

The basic principles of ILD are illustrated in Figure 2. The ILD value is influenced by the size of the head and for sources that are very close to the head. When the sound source is in the high-frequency range where the wavelength of the sound is smaller than the dimensions of the head, the sound will reach the ears closer to the sound source. When will reach the other ear, the sound will be held up or there is a failure of propagation of sound waves for a while, this phenomenon is called an acoustic shadow. The sound that finally reaches the other ear will experience a decrease in the level of sound pressure caused by the phenomenon of acoustic shadow.

Figure 2. Acoustic shadow phenomenon at high frequency

Written by:

Adetia Alfadenata

Acoustic Engineer

Geonoise Indonesia

support.id@geonoise.asia

Reference

  1. T. Potisk, “Head-Related Transfer Function,” 2015.
  2. X. Zhong and B. Xie, “Head-Related Transfer Functions and Virtual Auditory Display,” Soundscape Semiot. – Localis. Categ., 2014
  3. W. György, “HRTFs in Human Localization : Measurement , Spectral Evaluation and Practical Use in Virtual Audio Environment,” 2002.
  4. K. Carlsson, “Objective Localisation Measures in Ambisonic Surround- sound,” 2004.