How to Find Silence: A Map

The National Parks Service points us toward our noisiest, and quietest, places

Posted Jan 24, 2018

National Parks Service
Source: National Parks Service

At 6:50 this morning, in Brooklyn, I was blasted out of a deep sleep by the sound of sledgehammers, soon followed by the thud of jackhammers and the rumble of the hydraulic motor that powered them, tearing up the sidewalk three feet from my window.

This wouldn't have mattered so much had I not had trouble sleeping last night--had I not woken at 2 a.m. and tossed and turned and lain awake for almost two hours, thinking, "At least I can sleep late tomorrow."

Hey, buddy! This is Brooklyn! Fat chance.

So, I'm tired. But that's okay. And to be fair, though my room in Brooklyn is within earshot of the BQE, the major north-south expressway in this borough, I'm rarely woken up by street noise--and anyway, what the hell else should I expect in New York? If it's quiet I want, why not move to backwoods Maine, or Montana. Right?

Right--but what is not okay is the average level of noise to which I and the majority of people in the so-called developed world have grown inured. Research demonstrates that most of the urban population, in the US as in Europe--which means, most of the population, period--lives with noise levels averaging 50 decibels plus. Average noise of 50 decibels has been shown, in study after study, to increase the level of stress hormones in the human body, and to make us more susceptible to pathologies such as hypertension and stroke.

Elevated noise levels also fold in with high levels of informational noise, from emails, TV, SMS, video games, social media, all of which race the gears of our mind and prevent us from--

--take a deep breath--

--wait for it--

Stopping.

Listening.

Calming down. Thinking long and deeply. Following thoughts and memories to their end point, or their source.

Silence, on the other hand--or rather (since absolute silence does not exist) relative quiet--allows our mind to focus. Our heart rate slows down. We breathe easier. Thoughts and emotions  clamped down by noise and anxiety start to bubble up into our conscious mind.

The problem, of course, is that so few of the daily environments of urban folk are quiet enough to pull us out of the frenetic domination of noise.

Enter the National Parks Service, or what's left of it under a federal government that states publicly it wants to reduce protection for our public parks, thus opening them to oil drilling, lumbering, and coal mining. In the last days of the Obama administration, the NPS conducted an in-depth, long-term study aimed at finding the noisiest, and the quietest, places in America. They studied over 1.5 million hours of acoustic monitoring, and processed those data with a special algorithm. They mapped the quietest places in the US. The map is posted above.

The noisiest places, no surprises here, are where most of us live, in urban areas of the Northeast, Midwest, the South and the West Coast: tan and yellow on the map.

The quietest are blue--the deeper the blue, the more silent--grouped around the Rocky Mountains and high deserts of the West. In some of those quiet places, such as Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, sound levels stood around 20 decibels, a thousand times quieter than in our cities.

Most of us, looking at the map, will sigh, think wistfully of what it would be like to spend a month, even a weekend, in an isolated, pine-perfumed, silent valley in the Wyoming Rockies, and go back to our noisy frenetic day.

But maybe we should find a quiet place in our apartment, or workspace, and think about this a bit longer. We know noise is bad for us. We want to escape it. We are sick of jackhammers. And--

We have a map.