The Quietest Place in America Is Becoming a Warzone

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is the spot most free of man-made noise pollution in the U.S. It faces its biggest threat yet.
Gordon Hempton walks toward One Square Inch of Silence
Photo: Brian Kahn
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N 47.51575°, W 123.52133°—Amid the panoply of greenery that makes up the Hoh Rainforest, a gap in the old growth forest arises. Well, more accurately it’s a gap in a tree—a hollow inside a towering sitka spruce that stands like an open door. Beyond it, a short game trail through ankle deep mud and pools of water accumulated from the week’s rains ends in a clearing lined with ferns.

Gordon Hempton guides a group to the clearing where, on a log dotted with the tiniest plants and mosses sits a red stone, roughly one square inch. Hempton walks up to it, opens his satchel, grabs another similar red stone and places it on the log while grabbing the original one. It’s like the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hempton looks the part, except in a Northwest twist this Indiana Jones has swapped a leather jacket for a thick wool sweater and a whip for an umbrella. He turns and presses his meaty palm into mine, closing my hand around the burnt red stone slick with rainwater without saying a word.

The entrance to One Square Inch through an arch in a sitka spruce that’s big enough to walk through.
The entrance to One Square Inch through an arch in a sitka spruce that’s big enough to walk through.
Photo: Brian Kahn

Our group of nine clad in Gore-tex and soggy socks instinctively gathers in a circle around the rock, the new altar of the rainforest, a monument to One Square Inch of Silence. We had come to hear a sermon. Hands crossed, heads bowed, bodies stilled, we listen.

Seconds pass, then minutes as time starts to warp. One by one, the group of locals and the regional head of a nonprofit working with Hempton to protect the site peels back into the wall of greenery toward the trail. Eventually, I’m standing alone at One Square Inch.

After years of painstaking acoustic measurements, Hempton identified this spot on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as the quietest place in the U.S.—the spot most free of our man-made noise pollution. He has nurtured this square inch, guided people to it, and protected it from encroaching cacophony of our modern world. But now it faces its biggest threat yet.

As I stood listening to bird calls, leftover rain dropping from higher parts of the canopy, and creatures scattering in the underbrush, a plane flew overhead like static in the middle of a sonata. Later David Youngberg, one of my fellow hikers and a former Navy mechanic, will tell me it was likely a Growler, one of the Navy’s loudest jets. Flights of these planes are ramping up over America’s quietest place, turning a secluded spot on the Olympic Peninsula into a playground for wargames.

We look at trash on the beach or in the forest with disdain. Noise isn’t any different. It pollutes the landscape, discombobulates wildlife, and can take years off our lives. When we wipe it out, we wipe out a connection to something more primordial.

Quiet spaces have long helped humans find their grounding. Many of the world’s major religions rely on quietness, from moments of silent devotion in Catholic Mass to Buddhist meditation to Trappists monks who observe a vow of silence.

“Silence is a way to get clear and ask questions about what kind of world we are building,” Timothy Gallati, a Harvard Divinity School MDiv student studying contemplation in nature, told me.

Yet quiet is disappearing at an alarming rate. The furthest you can get from a road in the Lower 48 is a whopping 19 miles, making cars one of the most ubiquitous sources of noise pollution. Air traffic is increasingly crowding our skies. Subways roar, people yell, jackhammers, well, jackhammer. And all this sound is doing a lot more than breaking our concentration.

A 2011 World Health Organization report found that Europeans were losing nearly 1.7 million years of healthy life annually to noise pollution. While it may seem surprising that noise can literally shorten our lives, the disruption of sleep takes a toll, as does the acute stress noise causes. There’s also evidence noise stresses our bodies out in ways that affects our heart, gut, and nervous system. The report found noise results in the loss of 61,000 healthy years to heart stress and causes 45,000 years in children’s cognitive impairment annually. Those numbers are all just for Europe, and the report says they’re conservative.

So yes, we’re actually killing ourselves with sound.

Hempton on the trail leaving One Square Inch. Perhaps not surprisingly, an umbrella comes in really handy in the rainforest.
Hempton on the trail leaving One Square Inch. Perhaps not surprisingly, an umbrella comes in really handy in the rainforest.
Photo: Brian Kahn

Our sonic assault is also making life miserable for wildlife. Take owls, which use their finely tuned ears to pick up movements of tiny prey in the night. Research published in Biological Conservation shows that for every decibel increase in noise, northern saw-whet owls had an eight percent lower chance of detecting prey and a five percent lower chance of actually catching it. When background noise reached 61 decibels—basically the equivalent to your air conditioner running in the next room—the owls were not able to detect prey at all.

Underwater sound is no better. Increased boating activity is disrupting everything from fish’s flight reactions to predators to killer whales’ ability to communicate. Scientists have found that airguns used to survey for oil underwater cause reef fish to scatter or cower in fear. Their use was outlawed by Obama, but Trump is planning to reverse that decision.

Despite the mounting pile of evidence that noise is pollution, the government doesn’t really treat it as such. The Environmental Protection Agency launched an Office of Noise Abatement and Control in 1972, two years after the agency came into existence. Its purpose was to study noise pollution and enforce the Noise Control Act created that same year. Yet the office was wiped out by Reagan just nine years later in an unprecedented move.

“Of the twenty-eight environmental and health and safety statutes passed between 1958 and 1989, the Noise Control Act of 1972 (the NCA or the Noise Act) stands alone in having been stripped of budgetary support,” Sidney Shapiro, a University of Kansas law professor at the time, wrote in a 1992 paper about the office’s dissolution.

The EPA still has a statutory obligation to handle noise pollution, but the Noise Control Act has been all but defunded by Congress. So has the Quiet Communities Act of 1978.

In a 2000 paper reviewing noise pollution impacts on health, two Danish scientists noted that most of the effects of sound on our health “were already known or at least hypothesized” in the 1960s. “[H]arm would have been avoided,” the researchers wrote, had politicians taken a more proactive stance by the time the science was sufficiently mature nearly half a century ago.

I write this sitting in my apartment in Harlem where the shouting workers, whining saws, and the clattering rebar come through my shut windows as construction on a new building continues as noisily as ever. Completion date: spring 2019. I can almost feel the years slipping away every time my concentration breaks. The red stone from One Square Inch sits on my desk, and I stare at it, trying to find my way back to its former quiet resting place as an excavator goes to work.

Luckily, Rob Smith has better windows than I do. His office is also drier than our experience together in the Hoh. Sitting in his office on the 11th floor above Seattle’s bustling streets, Smith’s stately wash of white hair and comfy sweater give him a congenial appearance, but he is fiercely committed to fighting for public lands. He runs the northwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association, and the biggest concern for him right now is the noise pollution from Navy jets that fly with increasing regularity over one of the nation’s most cherished natural places. He spread out a map of Olympic National Park on his desk.

“This is a blank spot on the map for them,” he said, sweeping his hand over the high peaks, rainforest, rugged coast, and everything in between.

Olympic National Park came into existence in 1938 after a decades-long campaign to conserve the region’s old growth forests, home to massive cedars, Douglas firs, and other trees coveted by the timber industry. Although it wasn’t a consideration at the time, the park houses an acoustic wonder in addition to its scenic ones.

The Olympic Mountains are craggy sentries that block out sounds from the densely populated areas to the east along Puget Sound. They also form the first impediment to storms roaring in from the west, with copious amounts of rain unleashed on the mountains’ western flanks. That rain and the dreary skies have kept the western half of the peninsula sparsely populated while nourishing the Hoh Rainforest, the best preserved temperate rainforest in the U.S. Its lush landscape of ferns, shrubs and towering trees and the piles of detritus and leaf litter on the forest floor are all noise absorbers, making it a natural diving bell in the cacophony of the modern world.

The western half of the park is, in other words, uniquely situated for silence.

Smith was turned on to the wonders of silence by Hempton, a self-styled acoustic ecologist who travels the world capturing the natural soundscape of remote locales.

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to not be. After our hike, Hemptom and I met for a follow up chat in his office in Port Townsend, where he analyzes sounds and put together recordings for commercial and other clients that help pay the bills. His computer is full of thousands of recordings, all stashed in a database he coded himself that’s searchable by date, location, keyword, and other terms that he’s committed to memory. In between waxing about how sound affects human’s “deep ecology,” the best return period of ocean waves to reach a state of calm, and the impact of white noise on cortisol, he revealed more about why One Square Inch is so special.

Hempton had been traveling Washington in search of natural quiet for years. Measuring decibel levels as well as the time period between human sounds, he had identified a few locales as exceptionally quiet. But One Square Inch stood out for the length of time without human noise and its accessibility to the Hoh River trail.

The red stone at the center of One Square Inch, sitting among the mosses, lichens, and leaf litter.
The red stone at the center of One Square Inch, sitting among the mosses, lichens, and leaf litter.
Photo: Brian Kahn

“It needed to be one place,” he told Earther. “If you defend a point, it’s simple and clear to understand and you can defend the whole area.”

So Hempton made his stand, designating One Square Inch as the quietest place in the country on Earth Day in 2005. Since then, the need to defend One Square Inch has ratcheted up. For seven years running, Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport has set records for the number of travelers going to and fro. Asia is the biggest international destination, putting One Square Inch right in the crosshairs of commercial jet traffic.

But it’s the Navy Growlers that pose the biggest concern. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was commissioned in 1942, just four years after Olympic became a national park. Overflights have always been a part of the Navy’s training regime, but the arrival of the Growler in 2008 changed the complexion of those flights.

The planes are used for electronic warfare like knocking out or jamming radar and communications systems. To keep sharp, pilots fly regular missions over the peninsula—or the Pacific Northwest Electronic Warfare Range as the Navy calls it—seeking out and jamming signals from mobile radar stations positioned on land that rings the national park. To do that, though, they roar in low and at fast speeds, frequently buzzing the park and surrounding communities. The park has raised concerns, though the Forest Service issued a permit in 2017 allowing the Navy to use its roads to move radar stations around, and suggested there would be no significant environmental impact. Hempton, Smith, and other local groups have also raised concerns about the impact the flights are having on quality of life on the peninsula.

In the Hoh, the flight we heard was higher in altitude so it didn’t have the bone-rattling effect locals and wildlife are forced to cope with. Youngberg, my retired Navy mechanic hiking partner, explained how it feels to experience a Growler flyover. He worked on aircraft carriers during his time in the Navy and looked forward to a peaceful retirement in Forks (yes, the Twilight town) where he could shoot photos, meet up with friends for taco Tuesdays at the local bar, and take hikes in the woods. But his peace was shattered as the Navy has ramped up flyovers.

He sent me a link to a YouTube page where he records what happens when the jets fly overhead. The videos are wildly disorienting, with shots of the sky or the corner of a house followed by the sudden roar of a jet. The first time I watched one, I had the volume on my headphones up to medium. Bad choice.

Lauren Kuehne, an acoustic research scientist at the University of Washington, has also captured some of the jets flying over. Kuehne is doing sound monitoring in the park (more on that in a bit), and she sent me a recording of her own from last summer. I wisely turned the volume down before listening, but even then my headphones nearly buckled with the noise.

“The jet noise was intense enough that my microphones seemed to ‘blow out’ a bit,” she told Earther. “The flyover actually lasted quite a bit longer than 1 minute [sample].”

While Youngberg is out there with his phone and decibel meter, the Navy has relied on modeling the potential noise pollution rather than measuring it directly. Thomas Mills, a public affairs specialist at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, told Earther the Navy chose to do that because it taking direct measurements is a “limited methodology in predicting future impacts.”

“Additionally, the training airspace, which is approximately 1,614 square nautical miles in area, is randomly used by aircraft to maneuver in during various training activities,” he said. “There are no specific flight tracks that are routinely followed during training in the MOAs [Military Operations Areas], and military aircraft would not specifically fly over or in close proximity to monitoring locations. Additionally, there is no way to easily discern Navy aircraft flights from commercial or civil aviation aircraft flights, which also use the airspace extensively.”

Listening to Youngberg and Kuehne’s recording, it’s pretty clear how loud the Growlers can get and they are most definitely not a commercial aviation flight. Though my ears suffered the consequences once, Youngberg is forced to live it daily. In June, the naval station recently proposed adding 36 more Growlers to its fleet of 82 jets already in use. Mills said there are approximately 2,300 flights over the Olympic training area annually and the additional jets would result in “only a minor increase” in overflights.

But even a minor increase would add to the creeping tension Youngberg and other residents around the naval station deal with daily, waiting to see if a distant rumble is a commercial jet that will fade away or if it’s a Growler that will come, bringing with it the scream of simulated war.

If all this sucks for Youngberg, there are open questions about how it will affect wildlife. The National Park Service has a Natural Sounds and Night Sky division, but it’s done more work to protect the latter with a number of initiatives and outside support from the International Dark Sky Association. It’s a different story with quiet spaces, which have no similar outside constituency clamoring to preserve them the way the dark sky community has rallied against light pollution. Hempton estimates that there are maybe a few dozen advocates intensely devoted to silence around the globe. In late July, Hempton launched Quiet Parks International. It’s barebones for now, but he hopes it will blossom into something akin to the International Dark Sky Association.

Parks have done piecemeal sound monitoring, including some in Olympic. The park conducted a sound survey in winter 2010, but it hasn’t done one since. But there’s an effort afoot to remedy that, which is why I found myself on a tuft of dead branches and hemlock needles off the park’s Third Beach Trail located near La Push along the thin strip of coastal land the park manages—one of the sites where sound was monitored in 2010.

The canopy is less dense than at One Square Inch, the ground less padded. On a blustery early spring day, wind whipped through the trees, creating a soft swoosh that mingled with the waves breaking a few miles away at the coast. Woodpeckers tapped away, and the accelerating cha-cha-cha-cha of another bird call rang through the forest canopy. A branch cracked in the distance, perhaps felled by the winds. There were, of course, flights overhead, announcing themselves every 5-10 minutes with a dull rush before fading out over the Pacific.

Enter Kuehne who is again taking up the sound monitoring at this site after an eight year absence. Smith’s group has helped provide funding for her to setup passive acoustic monitors—basically really sensitive microphones—during summer, fall, and winter to track the soundscape here and at two other sites around the park. Passive acoustic monitoring presents a great way to gather changes because similar to camera traps, it doesn’t interrupt wildlife.

“We’re trying to update that [2010 work] and create a time series where it’s like this is what it was like in 2010 and this is what it’s like now,” Kuehne told me in Bremerton, at a cafe adjacent another of the ubiquitous naval installations along Puget Sound. “And you know presumably once the military starts flying more out there, we’re kind of building this little bit of a baseline.”

Kuehne said having the acoustic information could offer a clinical look at how sound is impacting the wilderness, as opposed to an emotional one. Rather than pitting patriotism and flag waving against the metaphysical value of nature, hard data can help show how the Navy is (or isn’t) impacting the landscape and guide appropriate conservation measures. And doing the research in a place with so few forms of artificial noise makes it that much easier to tease out the effect of air traffic on wildlife.

On one level, all this effort can seem a bit like NIMBYism. If Hempton, Smith, Youngberg, and others succeed in getting the jets routed around Olympic or convince the Navy to fly training missions from other bases, the flights will just piss off another community and stress out other wildlife. There’s always going to be a sonic sacrifice zone.

But on another level, it’s hard to argue with the need to protect the quietest place in America from the loudest jets. The square inch contains multitudes. Hempton said taking a symbolic stand for that tiny space can ensure silence in a much wider area.

“The logic is simple; if a loud noise, such as the passing of an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it,” is how the One Square Inch of Silence website explains this vision.

If we don’t defend silence, we sever one of the last ties to life on Earth before humans started raising a ruckus—before the combustion engine, before cities. If we lose silence, we lose the space to reflect on what makes us who we are.

The Quietest Place in America Is Becoming a Warzone
Photo: Brian Kahn

Correction: The location dateline has been changed. This post also referenced Indiana Jones’ leather hat. He actually wears a felt fedora. The reference has been removed and Gizmodo sincerely regrets the error.