[Science Solitaire] A half-quiet world

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] A half-quiet world
During the pandemic, a group of scientists measured the 'quiet' in the planet. And they found that human noise was down by half from March and May this year.

Now, we often speak of missing the good old days which seemed like eons ago. But that was only less than half a year ago. And as health agencies measured the rate of the coronavirus spread, as economists kept track of unemployment, losses and bankruptcies, and as governments scrambled to measure anything they can use to respond or defend any position they had against the virus, a group of scientists, just like those who measured the drop in air pollution around the world, measured the “quiet” in the planet. And they found that human noise was down by half from March and May this year. 

Since this pandemic has not happened before in a world that is this highly urbanized, and therefore generates so much human-made noise, we did not really know how noisy we were. Seismometers are typically used to listen to natural noises, some of which could indicate hazards like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. But these natural noises are also masked by the human-generated sounds of industry, construction sites or any areas with heavy machineries, traffic, and even sports events.  But the coronavirus quieted them all.

The scientists were able to detect the drop in noise from seismometers located in 268 stations in 117 countries during the major lockdown months. Getting this kind of data on how quiet it can be without the usual human frenzy is very useful because it can serve as a baseline on how to filter out these noises when they come back on again. That way, we therefore improve how we can listen to the natural signals that the planet is giving us in terms of its activity and its health. 

Humans have a natural bias towards “sight” to detect the presence of something. It is science that reminds us that the world we are dealing with is far more multi-faceted than just being detected by light. I had a full appreciation of this many years ago when I was with a bunch of ornithologists in a subtropical forest in Nepal. They were just listening to the sounds of the birds and they could tell not just which bird was making that sound but which other birds are most likely present since the lives of certain birds are interdependent. I was “gonged” by that experience that I gained a deep respect for divergent sounds in the wild as measure of the health of a place.

Now, “acoustic diversity” is detected not just with ornithologist’s trained ears but also with the help of instruments and it is an established way to measure the variation (and therefore, the richness) of a place.

I constantly work with colleagues around the world trying to find compelling ways to make people face the realities of the consequences of human actions on the natural world. One of the most moving experiences that has silenced audiences so far is a set of 3 sound clips: the first was a recording of a forest buzzing with a multitude of chirps, squawks, and rustling; the second was of a chainsaw in the same forest; and the third and last was the sound of silence in the same forest. I have never seen a group of people pause that long after experiencing a set of sound clips.

“Quiet” can be as potent as sound, but you also have to be quiet within to know what it means, so you can wield its power. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at