Making the Sand Dunes the World’s Second Quiet Zone

By Melanie Mandell

The air around us is filled with constant noise: traffic, construction, music, and air travel are just a few of its many sources. When was the last time you experienced ab- solute separation from all human-made noise, where the only sounds greeting your ears were the wind, the birds, and chatter from those around you?

For many, this experience is a rarity, if it ever occurs. However, respite from the human-generated soundscape may soon be found a few hours’ drive away from our campus. The Great Sand Dunes National Park, located near Alamosa, Colo., is on track to become the first quiet zone in the nation, and the second in the world. There is another quiet zone located in the eastern half of West Virginia, but this dedication refers to the banning of mid to high frequency radio waves, cell towers, and WiFi to preserve the function of The Green Bank Telescope. This telescope operates by ab- sorbing infinitesimally small energies from stars in the galaxy that would otherwise be lost amid human signaling towers.

The term “quiet zone” causes many, including myself, to think of absolute silence.

“Does that mean I won’t be able to speak?” asked Abbott Gifford ’22. Not exactly — rather, the dedication of “quiet” refers to reprieve from all artificial human-made sounds, everything from loud traffic to seemingly inaudible radio waves.

Average visitors will experience virtually no change in their experience at the park, except for signage barring music, after the Great Sand Dunes National Park is officially deemed a quiet zone. A week-long sound test conducted by Quiet Parks International in early 2020 is all that stands in the way of the park’s designation.

During this sound test, monitors will measure the frequency of flights overhead, how often traffic is audible, and how long the park is noise free on average, accord- ing to Colorado Public Radio. Ideally, Quiet Parks International would be able to talk to the Federal Aviation Industry and have them redirect flights which pass over the park, but that does not seem like a realistic possibility. Instead, quiet zones are being selected based on locations where flights infrequently travel, CPR reported.

If the test deems the area a feasible quiet zone, the park will officially receive the designation.

Quiet zones work to mitigate the harmful impacts of noise pollution. A 2017 study in Science magazine found that sound levels doubled in 63% of protected areas and increased tenfold in 21% of protected areas in the United States alone. Excess noise harms both people and other animals by interfering with sleep and communication and by increasing stress levels.

Bruitparif, a non-profit noise level monitoring organization in Paris, concluded that humans living with excess noise lose on average three years of healthy life, ac- cording to a 2019 New Yorker article. Many ailments of the human condition are exacerbated by the constant soundtrack of transportation and construction found in and around densely populated areas. The World Health Organization reports that health effects caused and/or worsened by high levels of noise include tinnitus (ring- ing of the ears), poor sleep quality, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, poor birth out- comes, and cognitive impairments in children.

Additionally, non-human animals are unable to live their best quality of life when disturbed by noise. Finding prey, mates, habitats, and safety all rely on acoustics, according to the National Parks Service. Without the ability to hear other animals, species are unable to find mates and food, and are forced out of their natural habi- tats.

The dedication of the Great Sand Dunes National Park as a quiet zone has the potential to be incredibly beneficial for the non-human animals in the local ecosystem, as well as a lovely noise reprieve for visitors.

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