A Quest to Protect the World’s Last Silent Places

19 Jun

In 2005, Gordon Hempton placed a small stone on a log in the Hoh Rainforest of Washington’s Olympic National Park, one of the quietest places in the world. He dubbed his miniature cairn One Square Inch of Silence. If he could keep the rock free of human noise pollution, Hempton reasoned, many surrounding square miles would be free of it, too.

Hempton, now 66, lives in the small town of Joyce, less than 15 miles from the park. He’s been recording endangered natural soundscapes around the world for more than 37 years. A documentary he made about his work, Vanishing Dawn Chorus, won an Emmy Award in 1992. “The earth is a solar-powered jukebox,” he likes to say.

For years, One Square Inch of Silence worked: Hempton monitored the spot and alerted noisemakers—mainly commercial airlines—of their trespasses via recordings and letters. He wrote a book about it, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet, and used it to spread awareness about the beauty of natural sound. Then, last year, the U.S. Navy ramped up training flights from its nearby Whidbey Island base to a large area over the western part of the park. Growlers, as the Boeing EA-18G radar-jamming jets are called, began flying more than six missions a day, producing a rumbling on the ground sometimes topping 70 decibels, about as loud as your garbage disposal.

One Square Inch of Silence became, frequently, loud. Hempton filed a complaint during the Navy’s public-comment period, which he says was censored and never saw the light of day. Recently, Hempton admitted the project had failed and started looking for ways to move forward.

“I realized I was asking the international community to care about one place,” Hempton says. “It wasn’t enough to talk about one place. We needed to talk about all places.”

For the past year, Hempton has been working on a new project, Quiet Parks International (QPI), which aims to certify and protect earth’s natural soundscapes. If it works, it will be one of the most comprehensive, cohesive actions ever aimed at curbing noise pollution.

The problem Hempton hopes to take on is gargantuan. To understand it, try a little experiment: when you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen.

What did you hear? The churn of the refrigerator? The racing hiss of passing traffic? Even if you’re sitting outside, chances are you heard the low hum of a plane passing overhead or an 18-wheeler’s air horn shrieking down a not-so-distant highway.

If you heard only the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, you’re one of a lucky few. But it’s likely that quiet won’t last.

Just as humans have spread colossal amounts of carbon dioxide and trash around the planet, we’ve also blanketed it in our damn racket. Air traffic has tripled since the 1980s, and the number of cars worldwide, already over a billion, is expected to reach two billion by 2030; the U.S. Bureau of Transportation estimates that 97 percent of the American population is regularly exposed to highway and air-traffic noise. And it’s not just in populated areas. A study published in Science in May 2017 found that human-caused noise had doubled background decibel levels in many of the most protected wildlife habitats worldwide. (In some endangered habitats, it increased background decibels tenfold.) Human noise is constant and practically everywhere.

Recent studies have shown that quiet can decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure and heart rate; another showed that silence helped mice regenerate brain cells in their hippocampus. On the flip side, man-made noise has been proven harmful both to people (causing high blood pressure, heart disease, and low birth weight) and especially natural ecosystems. When a researcher from Boise State University introduced a “phantom road” into pristine Idaho wilderness by simulating the din of traffic through loudspeakers, the noise alone drove a third of the local songbird population away. Some of the birds that stayed lost significant portions of their body mass, likely because they couldn’t hear to communicate or hunt.

“There is an epidemic of extinction of quiet places on the planet,” says Hempton. Haleakala Crater in Hawaii, formerly one of the world’s quietest spots, is overrun with more than 4,000 helicopter tours a year; in a recent story in The New York Times, several naturalists in search of quiet in remote regions of New Hampshire’s White Mountains were foiled by motorcycles, buses, and wailing babies. Hempton estimates that there are now fewer than ten places in the U.S. where natural noise can be heard uninterrupted by noise pollution for longer than 15-minute intervals.

The solution, he believes, is not meeting the noisemakers head-on. In 2017, Hempton and the captain of the Whidbey Island air station, Geoff Moore, went for a hike together in the Hoh Rainforest, but nothing changed. The big noisemakers, like overhead flight paths and power plants, are mostly unstoppable once they’ve been established. Instead, QPI is looking to locate the rare, relatively untouched natural soundscapes around the world and protect them before it’s too late.

The first question QPI has to answer seems simple: How quiet is quiet? Hempton and his team have already identified over 260 exceptionally quiet places around the world. Next, with the permission of local communities and governments, they hope to send out teams to certify those areas as quiet parks.

The teams will test each potential site for three consecutive days, measuring natural-noise decibels and intrusions; while no area is pristine, these readings will help them set the organization’s official standards for certification. According to Hempton, any “alarming or shocking” signature, like gunshots, sirens, or military aircraft, would immediately disqualify it from certification. Loud noises, if they’re natural, are fine.

On top of these wilderness quiet parks, they’ll also certify urban quiet parks, quiet neighborhoods, quiet hotels, and quiet marine parks, using more flexible noise standards. “We call the the urban parks quieter parks,” said Matt Mikkelson, an acoustic expert and a QPI associate adviser.

The parks could use the certification as they wish. QPI’s model has taken inspiration from the International Dark-Sky Association, which has, over the last 31 years, changed public perception on light pollution, helped enact policy on national and local levels, and established 120 locations as International Dark Sky Places. People visit these areas solely to see the Milky Way. So, QPI figures, why wouldn’t they visit a quiet park solely to hear the birds and the wind?

They’ll soon find out. In April, QPI announced its first official wilderness quiet park, a large swath of land in Ecuador that includes the Zabalo River watershed. The land for the park, about 200,000 acres, is owned by the indigenous Cofán tribe. When Hempton visited the area to record its sounds for certification, he recognized it as “a sonic eden,” the most pristine soundscape he’d ever heard.

“In a word, it’s a symphony,” Hempton says. The only sound intrusions he recorded were distant, barely audible commercial-jet flyovers every few hours.

Zabalo will be patient zero for QPI’s other main question: How much tourism money can quiet places bring in?

Proving certified quiet places as moneymakers will be vital to convincing powerful problematic entities—say, the U.S. Navy and its $68 million jets—to respect the cost of clamor. As the population continues to increase, Hempton says, “every square mile of the planet will be scrutinized for what its value is. And we believe quiet is gold.”

Tickets for the first quiet-park tourist group, which was led by Hempton and lasted 13 days in the park this June, went for $4,485 each, with half of the proceeds going to the Cofán (the other half went to a travel service; QPI and Hempton’s help was gratis). In an e-mail, Randy Borman, president of the Centro Cofán Zabalo, who worked with Hempton to create the park, wrote: “This type of trip is extremely important to the community as we work on developing our strategies for survival as a culture and a people, but also as we work to keep an intact and working environment which can in turn provide environmental services to the world at large.” Borman’s son, Josh, helped Hempton lead the first tourist group. “We’re trying to conserve our lands,” he says. “We don’t want oil companies to come in, we don’t want planes or highways going over our land.”

If the math seems straightforward, it’s not. “[Monetization is] a clever idea,” said Nick Miller, a retired acoustic engineer on QPI’s standards committee. “But it’s tricky. You’ve got to be convincing that the quiet does make a difference in visitation.” Economists have figured the math for, say, the cost impact of noise in neighborhoods around airports. But those numbers are divisive—the FAA and homeowners can feel very differently about how much roaring necessitates financial compensation. And there’s no agreed-upon cost-benefit analysis of a jet-free forest.

A bigger problem may be even more nebulous. “How do you get everybody to care about a resource to which they may never have had access?” says John Barentine, director of public policy for the International Dark-Sky Association. “If you’re a city dweller, and you don’t see stars at night, there’s a tendency to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way the world works.’ It would be the same for quiet parks.”

For now, QPI is in talks with park organizers in Sweden, Taiwan, New York City, and Portland, Oregon, where they hope to create urban quiet parks and build a grassroots movement. QPI just certified its first quiet community, Green Mountain Farm in North Carolina. And Hempton continues his stare down with the Navy in Olympic National Park. Even though the fighter-jet noise instantly disqualifies it from certification, he insists that Olympic will eventually become a quiet park. He hopes the Zabalo model can help prove to the Navy how much of the $300 million Olympic brings to the region has to do with its quiet. “The reason the Navy uses that space rather than Idaho is because they want to save fuel,” he said. “It’s an economic choice. But Olympic contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy, and the Navy doesn’t realize how they’re causing a negative economic impact.”

Activists are still fighting hard: in May, the National Parks Conservation Association (which has thrown its support behind QPI) announced it was suing the Navy for repeatedly failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the impact of its jet-training activities over Olympic. (The Navy declined to comment on the suit.)

Some days, Hempton finds the time to drive to the park and hike down the Hoh River Trail to the spot where a stone on a log still marks the one square inch he designated 14 years ago. During jet-free intervals, he listens to tree frogs croak and water droplets plop on the mossy forest floor. “For those who think of the environment and worry that the planet is coming to an end,” he says, “quiet is the total antidote. You come out with renewed hope.”

Can You Hack Coral to Save It?

13 Feb

On September 10, 2017, as Hurricane Irma drowned the Florida Keys with a five-foot storm surge and shredded houses with 130 mph winds, David Vaughan, a 65-year-old marine biologist, and Frank Slifka, a 67-year-old maintenance man, huddled inside the Elizabeth Moore Center for Coral Reef Research and hoped for the best. There were not many places to hide on the tiny spit of sand called Summerland Key, but the research center was one of them. The $7 million facility was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and resembles a cinder block on burly concrete stilts. From the second floor, Vaughan peered into the storm to check on his house and boat next door. All he could see was the wind itself, a roaring wall of gray.

When the storm’s eye passed directly overhead, the wind died and the storm surge sucked back out to sea. Vaughan could see that his house’s roof had begun to collapse. His boat had smashed into his Prius. He had 40 minutes to save what he could before the back wall of the hurricane hit and another storm surge rushed in.

He and Slifka rushed downstairs, turned their backs on everything Vaughan owned, and got to work in the laboratory’s ground floor, rescuing thousands of tiny plaster plugs capped by dark dots the size of a pencil tip—genetically hacked coral polyps that the storm threatened to wash away. Without them, Vaughan knew, the Florida Keys might not survive the next century.

When I drove into Summerland Key three months after the storm, debris still lined the main road, piled almost as high as the three-axle trucks rumbling in to retrieve and burn it. Just 20 miles east of bustling Key West, the island remained a ghost town. Boats and trailers sat marooned on front lawns, their carcasses spray painted with the redundant tag “trash.” Many residents hadn’t returned to clean up.

The Elizabeth Moore Center's parking lot, however, was packed with cars. The building had survived the storm. Inside its thick concrete walls, offices and dorm rooms thrummed with the paperwork doldrums of scientific life. Down in the open-air ground floor, the plastic holding tanks that had overturned in the storm once again brimmed with the corals Vaughan and Slifka had saved, plus thousands of others, submerged in bubbling seawater. Grad students slowly circulated among them, staring down into the troughs, gliding suction hoses along their bottoms.

Mote's strategy hinges on farming coral in a lab. (Courtesy Dan Mele/Mote Marine Lab)
Coral must be broken apart to regrow separately. (Courtesy Dan Mele/Mote Marine Lab)

When I wondered aloud about their job, one perked up and removed his headphones. “We’re removing detritus from the bottom,” he said.

“Snail shit,” said another.

Suctioning snail shit is where the rubber meets the road for the facility’s main mission: saving coral from extinction via a groundbreaking technique of genetic modification and cloning.

Corals are strange creatures, invertebrate organisms made up of individual tentacled polyps that, under a microscope, each look like a miniature Sarlacc pit. Inside each polyp are tiny marine plankton that photosynthesize food, giving the polyp enough energy to build a calcium carbonate reef structure around itself and its neighboring polyps.

They’re also fragile. Without grad students to suction up snail shit at this stage of their lives, the polyps would be strangled by too much algae. Without carefully monitored water temperatures, the polyps would overheat and expel all their algae and bleach, a much greater danger that leads to wide-spread die offs.

Vaughan, the executive director of the Elizabeth Moore Center, has a graying castaway’s beard and cloudy blue eyes. He commutes to work every day by paddling a canoe 50 yards across Summerland Key’s canal from the dock at the back of his house, which is still standing. “People say, ‘You’re the best low-carbon-footprint commuter,’” Vaughan said. “They don’t even know that I hold my breath going across, so I’m not emitting anything at all.”

Vaughan giggles—he does that—but he’s getting at something. Since the 1970s, the greenhouse effect from the atmosphere’s absorption of carbon dioxide has raised average ocean temperatures by almost two degrees Fahrenheit. In the next 100 years, that temperature could rise by between two and six degrees more. Worse, the sea has absorbed about half of humanity’s total CO2 output, which has chemically reacted with the main substrate of the ocean, calcium carbonate—a compound that all sea animals with exoskeletons, like crabs, shrimp, clams, and coral, depend on to live—to make oceans 30 percent more acidic than they were in the 19th century. That higher acidity makes it harder for coral to build its reef structure. If ocean acidity continues to increase into the next century, it could mean reefs will begin eroding faster than they are being built—or, literally, start melting away.

The combination of warming and acidification has been devastating to coral. Since the 1970s, scientists estimate 20 to 40 percent of the world’s coral has been killed off by bleaching events caused by high water temperatures. In certain areas, it’s been worse. In 2015, 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest living structures, died off in a mass bleaching event. A 2008 study estimated that only 2 percent of Florida’s native staghorn and elkhorn corals remain alive. And bleaching events worldwide are happening more often as earth’s average temperature climbs. Florida’s reefs have experienced bleaching events in 12 of the past 14 years.

The effects of this mass extinction are catastrophic. Never mind that reef tourism generates $5 billion annually in Florida and $36 billion worldwide. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people depend on fish stocks that are supported by the coral reef ecosystem, without which they’ll starve.

What’s more, if reefs disappear, millions of people living in these low-lying coastal regions, including the Keys, could be displaced—or drowned—by megastorms like Irma, which the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes will only get stronger in coming years due to warming ocean surface temperatures. These communities depend on fringe and barrier reefs, where corals rise like a wall from the seafloor, beating back the strength of incoming waves like defensive linemen breaking up an oncoming blitz. A study during Hurricane Wilma in 2005 found that barrier reefs attenuated 99 percent of the height of the storm’s 42-foot waves before they hit the shoreline. But the reefs pay a price for their work. Before Irma smashed into the Keys, many of its fringe and barrier reefs had been covered in hard and soft corals. Now, said Robert Nowicki, a postdoc research fellow at the Mote Marine Laboratory, the organization that runs the Elizabeth Moore Center, some of them had been “scoured almost to nothing, like the surface of the moon.” If there’s no new coral to replace the old, life as we know it along the world’s tropical coasts will almost certainly change.

Mote volunteers planted 500 Stagorn Coral on Hope Reef in June 2017. (Courtesy Conor Goulding/Mote Marine Lab)
Coral replanted by the Mote Marine Lab (Courtesy Joe Berg/Mote Marine Lab)

“Twenty-five-to-30-foot waves were hitting our reef during Irma,” Vaughan told me. “If those waves had not been smashed on the reef, then they would have smashed on our island, right here. I think our tallest buildings are 33 feet. So where would anybody run to?”

In the past five years, all these disastrous consequences for reefs have pushed coral reef restoration to the forefront of marine science. The field is expensive and controversial, but today, it’s considered the tip of the spear in the fight to help coral survive into the next century.

Scientists like Ruth Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, have recently made major strides in identifying and crossbreeding the genotypes, or genetic families, of each coral species that can survive the higher temperatures and acidification we can now expect in the coming years—temperatures and pHs that will kill and then dissolve many of the world’s less-hardy corals. The goal is to create a “super coral” that will survive an increasingly inhospitable ecosystem.

Vaughan and his team are part of this search for genetically superior corals. But their main contribution is what Vaughan calls his microfragmentation program, which both clones corals and hacks the mechanisms for their growth rates. “We can fix things that we thought impossible ten years ago,” Gates told me when I asked her about Vaughan’s work. “Really, his techniques are at the center of the question, ‘How do we build a reef?’”

Vaughan’s technique is absurdly simple: He uses a saw to chop healthy hard coral pieces into much smaller fragments; these grow back extremely quickly atop small concrete plugs and are then replanted in the sea. In essence, he’s created a sea-life version of Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Smash them up, then watch them come roaring back with a vengeance.

The technique is a vital one for the field. Coral’s biggest problems might be warming seas and rising acid levels, but those are magnified by a sad fact of life for corals: They aren’t very good breeders. “We actually didn’t know how corals reproduced until the 1980s,” Vaughan said. That’s because, as if adhering to some dirty fairy tale, corals breed only a few days a year, en masse, for around 30 minutes, shortly after the full moon in August, when they simultaneously fill the sea with their white, snowy-looking gametes in a single, very unkinky orgy.

Because of this sex tactic, only one in a million potential baby corals is successfully fertilized and survives to become a juvenile. That means it takes some corals 25 or even 50 years to successfully reproduce. Given the rate of the ocean’s decline, that’s not going to produce the genetically superior corals nearly fast enough. “We’ve probably got 50 to 100 years to act with these resistant strains of coral,” Vaughan said. “If we still don’t change in 100 years, and it keeps getting hotter and hotter—there’s certainly a limit to everything.”

Vaughan stumbled on his procedure five years ago when he accidentally broke a piece of coral in his lab and left it in the bottom of the tank. When he returned two weeks later, it and the other fragments had regrown to their original size. He’s still not sure exactly why this happens, but his closest analogy is our skin cells, which regrow quickly to cover a fresh wound but otherwise lay dormant.

Using jewelry saws, Vaughan and his team started fracturing their lab-fertilized corals. Within three to six months, they could turn a single coral into 60 to 100 new organisms the same size as the original. The fractured corals continued to grow between ten and 40 times faster than coral in the wild, depending on their species.

Then Vaughan made a much more important discovery. Because the polyps were technically all part of a single organism before they were fragmented, they were clones—and they would willingly reconstitute back into a larger organism, skipping ahead into maturity. “Usually, when corals touch each other, they start fighting, and they can kill each other,” Vaughan said. “But when we put 100 of the fragmented pieces next to each other that had come from a single original piece, they didn’t fight. They recognized each other as themselves. And they would actually start to fuse together, like skin grafting.”

A piece of coral the size of a golf ball, fractured into 20 pieces replanted side by side, could produce a single large coral the size of a pizza just four to five years later. It worked in the wild, too. In four years, Vaughan could have a sexually mature coral the size of a football or a table—depending on how many individual pieces of coral he decided to combine—which would have taken a natural coral 25, 50, or even 100 years to grow.

These quick-growing fragmented corals could be planted near one another in the wild to cross-breed and create uber-corals resistant to high water temperature, ocean acidification, and disease. When paired with the work of genetics-focused scientists like Gates, it would be like replanting a rainforest that could continue to proliferate, with offspring that grew bark strong enough to break a logger’s chainsaw.

Vaughan set a goal to plant a million corals before he retired. He and his team grew their coral output exponentially, planted multiple offshore nurseries, began making their reef-growing techniques cost-efficient, and started working to score the major state grants needed to rebuild Florida’s reef industry.

Then the hurricane hit.

Working quickly, Vaughan and Slifka saved the vast majority of the coral plugs outside the Elizabeth Moore Center—some 5,000 out of nearly 7,000. Inside the lab, another 14,000 corals rode out the storm, along with a gene bank holding the most promising genotypes of all 28 coral breeds found in the Keys.

Out in the field, acres of wild corals were sandblasted by the storm’s waves. One of the lab’s field nurseries for lab-fractured elkhorn and staghorn corals—more fragile, branching corals that look like antlers and are endangered in Florida—was almost entirely wiped out. “It was pretty disheartening,” said Erich Bartels, a staff scientist. “That coral was the result of 500 hours of work per person, per year, for seven years.”

But another field nursery for the lab’s elkhorn and staghorn farther south fared much better, with only minimal losses. And the lab’s hardier boulder corals also had a higher survival rate. “All we can do is plant as many good corals as we can," said Nowicki, "use the numbers game, and spread everything out so that a single storm can’t destroy everything we’ve done.”

Vaughan still says he won’t retire until he plants his million corals worldwide. Upscaling the process is beginning to pay off. The cost per coral has dropped from around $1,000 a piece to only $20 a piece, thanks to more efficient methods. The lab already has grants to plant between 25,000 and 50,000 corals in 2018, and by spreading his techniques to local coral restoration labs worldwide, Vaughan hopes to quickly catapult those numbers into the hundreds of thousands per year. He and his team are hoping to change the public’s attitude toward saving reefs, which, since the Great Barrier Reef’s die-off in 2015, has shifted toward hopelessness.

“One of the things that disheartens me the most is people saying, ‘Oh, we’re screwed. Planet’s over. There’s nothing we can do,’” Nowicki said. “There are things we can do. But you have to have the courage and the resources to go out and try.”

On my last day at the lab, I found Frank Slifka, the maintenance man who stayed behind to weather Irma with Vaughan. Slifka was working in the bowels of the facility, where the tidal surge had swept through during the storm, cleaning up and keeping track of diving equipment in metal wire cages.

“People ask why we stayed behind,” Slifka told me, shaking his head. “We weren’t trying to be brave or heroic or anything like that. We just decided that if we were really here to save the coral, then that’s simply what we needed to do.”