Broadcast date: week of August 6, 2021
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As glaciers move and melt, many unsuspected sounds can emerge from the ice. (Photo: Unsplash, Vince Gx)
The seemingly constant onslaught of grim statistics and charts on climate change may result in some people shutting down, unwilling or unable to address one of the most serious environmental problems of our time. To bring people back into a conversation about our climate change, researchers at the University of Virginia are using what’s called eco-acoustics – sounds that illustrate the relationship between humans and their environment. Journalist Sandy Hausman has the story.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. When we see statistics and charts on climate change, many of us may start to stop, reluctant or unable to address one of the most serious environmental issues of our time. To bring people back into a conversation about our climate change, researchers at the University of Virginia are using what’s called eco-acoustics – sounds that illustrate the relationship between humans and their environment. Journalist Sandy Hausman has the story.
HAUSMAN: Willis Jenkins teaches religious studies, but lately he’s been called to the coast to record the sounds of sea level rise and oyster reefs.
JENKINS: When you hear the reef recording, you’re going to hear a popping or cracking sound, and it’s actually a pistol shrimp, and then you can also hear kinds of micro-currents of water moving around in it. and around the reef, and there may be some low fish calls. And then every now and then there is a low, low-key sound as the oyster metabolism pushes undigested food out of its intestines.
HAUSMAN: The people who hear this recording are drawn into the dialogue.
JENKINS: The sound element is so captivating that people ask a lot of questions about it, and then they start asking about organisms and data changes over the decades, in conversations that usually last longer than if I just had to tell you about the health of these wetlands.
HAUSMAN: His colleague from the AVU music department agrees. Matthew Burtner now works in a cabin near Anchorage, where he records glaciers as they slowly melt — or suddenly fall into the sea.
[GLACIER FALLING SOUND]
BURTNER: It’s an incredible symphony of sounds actually. There are incredibly low, booming sounds. They sound like jet engines up close as those large chunks of ice calve and fall, then there are some of the most delicate ringing and trickling sounds you’ve ever heard – those little patterns of water moving across the ice. when the ice melts and creates little tiny melodies, little tiny rhythms, and the whole surface of the glacier is just alive with sound.
[WATER DROPS SOUND]
HAUSMAN: After recording the sounds of the Arctic, he translates the climate data into notes and combines them to create compositions that tell the story of global warming. Hearing it, he says, is fundamentally different from reading or talking about climate change.
BURTNER: There’s a lot going on when we shift our attention from looking at the world and moving in the world, to just listening to the world. It’s a way of being more contemplative. If we could understand glaciers as a complex sonic symphony of the way we listen to Beethoven, it could do a lot for our relationship with the natural world.
HAUSMAN: The work itself is difficult. It was 65 degrees in Charlottesville when I reached Burtner in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska. There, he said, the conditions were very different.
BURTNER: Today is three degrees and it’s snowing outside. You know, to do anything you have to shovel and you are constantly trying to keep the equipment warm because the equipment is not designed to operate in subzero temperatures.
HAUSMAN: But he loves being outdoors in any weather, and recording off the east coast is fun. He and Jenkins can now assess the health of an oyster reef by sound and monitor the size of crustaceans by listening to what they call crab streamers – sounds heard when the wind blows over holes in the sand.
BURTNER: We were hoping we could record the crab, but the crab barely made any sound, and we couldn’t hear it, but we could hear the wind whistling above the crab’s flute – that wind instrument that the crab did.
HAUSMAN: You can hear Burtner’s work on his new album, Glacier Music on Revallo Records, with what is sure to be a hit song called âSyntax of Snowâ.
For Living on Earth, I am Sandy Hausman.
BASCOMB: The Sandy Hausman story comes to us courtesy of WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Read the original WVTF story
Learn more about pistol shrimp
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