Noise Pollution Affects Wildlife And Ecosystems
December 16, 2012

New Tool Models Noise Pollution And Its Effects On Wildlife

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its partners - including Colorado State University and The Wilderness Society - have developed a new tool that is being used by scientists and land managers to model how noise travels through landscapes and affects species and ecosystems. Noise pollution is a major factor in land and wildlife management decisions such as where to locate new roads or recreational trails.

The new tool, SPreAD-GIS, predicts how sound spreads from a source through the surrounding landscape using spatial data layers. It also predicts how that sound is affected by factors such as vegetation, terrain, weather conditions, and background sound levels. Understanding how sound propagates allows scientists and policymakers to determine potential impacts to wildlife, including reducing habitat quality, altering the geographic distribution of species, disrupting animal communication, and causing stress. The specifics of this new tool are described in the November issue of Environmental Modeling & Software.

Owl and human sensitivities to motor vehicle sound levels were compared. The analysis by SPreAD-GIS showed that in the same location, motor vehicle noise would affect owls in an area 45 percent larger than the area affected for humans. Owls rely on their acute sense of hearing to detect even the slightest movement of prey, so exposure to such noises could have an adverse effect on the owl's ability to survive and thrive.

WCS Scientist Sarah Reed said, "Exposure to human-caused noise can change the game for many species. Those species that are less tolerant of noise can be put at a disadvantage and ultimately, this may result in a loss in biodiversity. By predicting what the effects of sound will be on a bird or mammal species in advance, we can more adequately balance our land-use planning decisions with conservation considerations."

The research team is currently using SPreAD-GIS and field measurements of motor vehicle noise to forecast the area affected for bird and mammal communities in the Sierra National Forest in California. The model has also been downloaded by hundreds of users in more than 25 countries for education, research, residential development and natural resource extraction.

Reed concluded, "Most existing tools are used to understand noise in human-dominated environments and don't incorporate factors affecting noise propagation in natural systems. This tool is free and relatively user-friendly for the average desktop GIS user, and comes at a time when ecologists are just beginning to understand the critical role that sound disturbances play in affecting wildlife."