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How much have humans changed the soundscape of Glacier National Park?

Every national park has its own unique acoustic environment or “soundscape,” but anthropogenic noise increasingly threatens these sounds of nature. 

Whitney Wyche, a recent graduate from Franklin & Marshall College, conducted a study to document how the soundscape of Glacier National Park has transformed over the past 19 years. The research is published by the Geological Society of America.

“The focus of my project in Glacier was to conduct sound monitoring to see how the soundscape has changed,” said Wyche. “Many visitors come to national parks to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature. To preserve this natural soundscape for future generations, it needs to be monitored and managed.”

Understanding the impacts of noise

Noise affects our environment more than we might think. It can disrupt both marine and terrestrial wildlife, causing shifts in their vocal and foraging behaviors. 

Furthermore, the abundance of species decreases in noisy habitats, and this noise can alter how they navigate their environments. 

Wyche noted the profound effect of even a small increase in noise. For example, a predator that typically hears sounds within a 9m^2 radius in a natural environment would find this radius reduced to 7m^2 with the addition of just one decibel of sound, she explained. 

Focus of the study

“My project, which is a continuation of a soundscape project in Glacier from 2004, can provide more information about the natural soundscape,” said Wyche.

The primary concern at the time was aircraft noise, especially from scenic helicopter rides originating outside the park that nevertheless intruded its soundscape.

In 2019, a comparative study by Worcester Polytechnic Institute students found that aircraft noise remained relatively unchanged from the 2004 baseline.

A new perspective

However, Wyche’s recent research paints a slightly different picture. Commercial air tours have decreased since 2004, thanks to the park’s new Air Tour Management Plan. By contrast, visitor numbers have surged by 50%. This led to a mixed impact on the acoustic environment.

Wyche, along with co-authors Jillian McKenna and Damon Joyce from the park service, set out to understand these shifts. They used advanced monitoring equipment across various sites in the park to capture and analyze the changing sounds. 

What the researchers learned 

Notably, while audible propeller aircraft noise remained consistent in areas near current air tour routes, it decreased at Logan Pass, a location away from authorized air tour routes.

“The percentage of time with audible propeller aircraft remained similar at sites near the current air tour route, while decreasing at Logan Pass, which is not near the currently authorized air tour route,” said Wyche.

As the park plans to cease commercial air tours by 2029, continuous monitoring of Glacier National Park’s soundscape will be crucial. 

Wyche noted that monitoring how the park’s soundscape has changed will help inform park management on threats to be addressed.

Mosaics in Science

Wyche’s efforts in Glacier National Park during the summer of 2023 were part of the Mosaics in Science Diversity Internship Program. 

This initiative provides underrepresented college students and recent graduates in STEM fields with hands-on experience in the National Park System, promoting diversity and inclusion. The program operates in collaboration with Environment for the Americas.

“I greatly enjoyed my experience working as a Mosaics in Science intern,” says Wyche. “I especially appreciated the goal of the internship program because it makes environmental careers more accessible to people of color.”

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