Tag Archives: wilderness

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

As the haze is again settling over San Francisco and blanketing the Bay Area, fire season has begun again in Northern California. The densely populated Bay Area is surrounded by levels of particulate matter from the fires based in the Sierra Nevada, sending some flakes to San Francisco, as alerts are issued to those in Santa Rosa, Livermore and San Jose sensitive to air quality to avoid extended outdoor activities, and reduce their time out of doors.

The new strategies of fire containment, however, that have been adopted by PG&E, after the private company used its privileges to declare power shut-offs in ways that did not seem so “surgical” at all–leading led Bay Area State Senator Jerry Hill to remind the corporation that all safety shut-offs “must be a surgical, last resort measure,” not a knee-jerk method of containment–although what a “surgical” sort of shut-off of electricity would be was unclear, as it would presuppose an assessment of transmission poles, the clearing of nearby trees, and tools of pinpointing high winds. In an era when, in the East Bay and in Oakland, we’ve been looking at fire warnings in public service announcements placed on the side of park entrances and highways for over ten years,

the emergency warnings that extended a red flag alert of extreme fire danger to the entire Bay Area on October 8.

The increased gustiness of winds generalized a sense of extreme fire danger, reminding us of the broad state of fire in a drying state, where rainfall has created a rage of fires across the state. Obi Kaufman has compiled the fearsome image of fires across the state in a rather fierce water color map, which belies its medium, that serves to picture the spread of fires across the states’ counties more concretely than the best remote sensing allows–and indeed how fires have increasingly shaped the topography of the state–raising the deep, primeval fears of fire as a plague of contiguous burning regions across the state, as if its entire surface is lit by fires that bled into one another, moving across space in record time.

Obi Kaufman, “Fire Desnity”

Numbers of residents displaced by the fires over the last five years in California stands as a human rights crisis, particularly acute among lower-income residents of the state, often displaced by loss of homes which leaves them without options of relocation. Because most communities in California wait an average of five years until homes are rebuilt after fires subside, the increasing occurrence of “wild” fires in the state significantly increase the income divides, diminishing the amount of available housing stock across much of the state, and increasing the cost of rentals after fires have been extinguished,

One must read the map of the occurrence of fires in the past five years is also a map of displacement, and pressures on public housing, and of the increased salience of a public-private divide afflicting the local economy and all residents of the state, and standing to disrupt the common good more precipitously than property loss can map: the occurrence of fires around the so-called urban-wildlands periphery, where many seeking housing are also pushed–outside of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles or San Diego–creates an apocalyptic scenario where many of the suburban residential areas are consumed by raging fires, displacing residents who will find it even harder to find a home.

The mosaic of the fires seems an impossible challenge to process or parse. But it suggests the impossibility of removing the range of fires that have occurred in the last five years form the cities where populations are concentrated in California, and indeed confirms the surreal nature of how a sustained absence of precipitation has ringed the capital with hugely destructive fires, which despite their individual names suggest the new landscape that tightening resources in the state are compelled to address, both in prevention and mitigation even as the costly nature of controlling what has been an almost year-round fire season creates a budgetary costs few have prepared for:

Is Kaufman’s map the true map underlying the panic at the possibility of new firestorms? It will help us take stock of the dissonance of the maps that PG&E presented of electric shut-offs, and the contorted syntax of public explication of the potential shut offs of elec. We were warned to potentially be the very wind conditions that in 2017 helped spread the North Bay Fires, rendering immediate danger signs throughout the Oakland Hills where memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 were still raw, inscribed in the landscape, as the largest suburban conflagration that spread from the Oakland Hills over the weekend, as the Tunnel Fire was fanned by Diablo winds in late October, destroying hillsides of homes, and pain, shocking residents in ways that would barely receded from the public imaginary by the time of the North Bay Fires were fanned a quarter of a century letter. The mosaic of the regions that were consumed by fire in the past five years in California reveals something of a patchwork quilt.  But the dramatic expanse of the Camp Fire that consumed the city of Paradise, CA suggested a new era of fire regimes, as it flattened the city in ten minutes, creating refugees of climate change on our own soil as it destroyed 14,000 family dwellings and displacing 50,000, with refugees across Yuba City, Chico, Sacramento, and across Butte County.  Nearby, the devastating fire was witnessed differently than other wildfires:  as the air entered our lungs in the Berkeley, Davis, and Sacramento, and we witnessed the sun go red and skies grey.  While the fire was removed, it was immediate, inhabiting multiple spaces at once, if burning across a wooded landscape and consuming huge carbon reserves.

NWS warned about this danger of fire, which couldn’t have been clearer in anyone’s mind, or to PG&E’s new board of directors as they were forced to decide upon a plan of action with the growth of Red Flag warnings in much of the northern state.:

If the dystopia of Fire Season lay last year in raging firestorms that consumed homes, tract housing, and high carbon forests, the safety measures that were adopted after the North Bay Fires of 2017 to curtail corporate responsibility have become a new dystopia, of intermittent power supply, immediately inconveniencing the poor, elderly, and infirm, as a temporary safety tactic was extended to thirty-four of fifty-eight counties–over half–as if this was a new strategy of fire prevention or containment.

For Califorrnia’s largest publically traded utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, faces charges it is unable to maintain, respond, or oversee a state-wide safety issues beyond its control, even if it has entered bankruptcy. The state utility company has been widely blamed for failing to maintain the safety of its transformers has just openly recognized its transformers were the “point of ignition” of the recent tragic fires–exposing itself to 11.5 billion in damages for what was the most deadly fire in California history as it spread across 150,00 acres that the admission of a site of ignition and previous charges for which its equipment was blamed, if not $30 billion in damages.

California’s legislature had tried to extend support to the utilities company in the wake of previous fires to spare it from previous wildfire liabilities; the reluctance to extend any similar security to PG&E has turned to anger in the face of the current destruction, however, reflects huge discontent with continued abilities of forest management and outrage at the scope of the devastation of local neighborhoods, and the scale of the destruction of over 18,000 buildings in the Camp Fire. Even as the current scare has retreated, allowing air quality to improve for now around much of the Bay Area,

there are steep charges PG&E improperly maintains forested areas and trees in proximity to electrical wire–especially dangerous in a parched landscape that has lacked rainfall over multiple years. After the rapid spread of the fires of the Camp Fire, after multiple combustive wildfires to scorched the North Bay in October 2017 that killed forty-four, it is hard to single out poor maintenance as the issue at stake in the fires’ spread. Yet the corporate entity has become blamed on inadequate repairs, maintenance, or poor record keeping, as if such bad practices left state residents increasingly vulnerable. Even if most dismissed President Trump’s wilder claim that the spread of fires in Northern and Southern California were due to “gross mismanagement of the forests,” the notion of blaming the utilities company for its negligence seemed more credible. But building beside grasslands and desiccated forested land have created a new geography of fire and of fires’ spread–revealed in satellite measurements of the fearsome spread.

The liabilities that the power company was assessed for the destruction with which the recent fires’ spread undercut its credibility and increased a sense of its negligence, removed from the extreme weather the state has faced and for which few containment strategies exist. To be sure, the demand to define a felon seems to have overridden the danger of placing transmission lines near forested areas without rain. The aftermath of the fires–perhaps critically the time since Paradise, as it were–has created a sense of nervous breakdown in assessing, monitoring, and mitigating fire danger, it almost seems, as we rush to individuate and indicate clear blame for a changing climate and a lack of response to a decreased level of precipitation rarely experienced, in the need to identify a clear cause or victim for such massive and persistent disequilibria that undermined the public good and well-being in the apocalyptic fires northern and southern California faced, and the terrifying alarm before maps of the fires’ destruction and accelerated spread, perhaps without pausing to consider inter-relations that create a radically new firescape. And the outage maps that PG&E issued to its clients as gustiness of winds grew suggested a similar remove from an overderied landscape, long lacking rain.

And the maps that were issued to make the case for the outages weren’t that convincing, seemed quite improvised, if they did alert customers to the impending danger of power outages as a response to contain future fires. The loopy maps that were recently issued by PG&E, California’s very own home-grown for-profit energy company, to its customers or “consumers” seemed a weak public wager of confidence. After hemming and hawing, apparently, about deciding how to respond to the forecast of possible high winds returning to northern California, a region over recent decades that is haunted by fires by every earlier autumn. Whether they actually prevented fires–as PG&E insists, and left us all to sight with relief–or not, the hodge-podge constellation of overlapping parcels of indicating potential electrical shut-offs was disorienting–

–and didn’t create more clarity by drilling deeper down into Bay Area neighborhoods..

Were the maps a warm-up for the difficulties of managing the threat of fire in a new fire season? Our “fire season” now stretches past winter, if not lasting all year, and its length has created such problems of management that PG&E elected to announce last Tuesday evening that the power was being turned off to over 800,000 of its customers preventively, affecting what might be upwards of 2.5 million individuals. It did so by exploiting an ability that it had gained after inadequately struggling to respond to past fires that had caused damage across the state, but intense loss of homes and property in Northern California, after the Camp Fire almost a year ago in 2018;, combined problems of infrastructural management and climate issues of a lack of rain it was unable to face, management of which was triple jeopardized after it had declared bankruptcy as a private corporation, which this time shut the power preemptively as the gusty winds began to blow.

This being California, it was significantly striking that the turquoise rings seemed electrified version of the iconography of radiating earthquake tremors, and caused a comparable alarm.

The maps were hardly much grounds of confidence, born as the board of directors hunkered down in preparation for those dry, warm wind of winter to sweep across Northern California. They were announced to be the result of the sudden arrival of “unprecedented fire risk,” even as the highest temperature anomalies recorded in the state had been published online since early summer, as dry autumn winds of increasingly high velocity returned to raise fears across the state, setting off alarms for a new geography of firestorm risk.

For “risk” in this case meant winds, and fire danger was understood as an intersection, as in a Venn diagram, between combustible undergrowth and winds that could carry dangerous embers from downed power lines–the apparent paradigm of recent outbreaks of what the media still calls–with PG&E–“wildfires,” as if they were due to a failure to thin the woods.

This may be the best optic through which to understand the awfully loopy maps that the company released, in an attempt to suggest that this time it really had the situation under control, or at least to dodge the danger of not seeming to have responded to verifiable risk. The responsibility of PG&E exercised over the electrical infrastructure of the state had led to its ability to monitoring weather privately to determine the urgency of shutting off residents’ power, allowing customers to consult a weather webpage to ensure some sense of transparency.–and security–until it crashed under broad demand for answers. The project of educating customers to the possibility of unprecedented outages raised questions responsibility and agency that many felt the private company had not been delegated authority to adjudicate.

The prediction of gusts of wind from the Great Basin over areas that still bear traces of firestorms created a broad sense of alarm, however, and with good reason. High gusts of dry air had spread firestorms of huge destruction, crumbling steel lattice structures of aging transformer towers that sent power lines crashing into dry underbrush, in Pulga, as low precipitation, low atmospheric moisture, and sparks led to particularly extreme consequences: debates about what “good forest management” has led to concern about the strength and durability of elevated electric wires knocked down by the force of high winds, pushing brush fires that became firestorms over vaster areas than firefighters had been used to manage–or fire fighters had even recently imagined. It led many to contemplate the stubborn fact that an expanded network of elevated electrical wires, bearing charge, running more prominently than ever before across a wild lands-urban interface, with terrifying consequences.

Despite the complexity of expertise required to explain the fires’ spread and indeed the problems of forest management, the maps that PG&E issued to explain outages were not clear. Only earlier this year, Judge William Alsup called the PG&E “the single most culpable entity in the mix” within the current “crisis that California faces on these wildfires.” This led several attorneys had sued the company for the huge damages of the Camp and North Bay wildfires eagerly listened, happy that some accountability did seem to be in the air. But as PG&E had let its budget for reducing trees near transmission lines whither, they seemed to illustrate utter irresponsibility in neglecting “a large number of trees that should have been removed, and that appears to be the single biggest factor in the 20107 and 2018 fires,” demanding that the fire mitigation plan of the energy corporation follow state law by trimming trees that might contact power lines in high Fire Season winds, which were only expected to grow, and placing there corporation on probation. The limited sensitivity of CEO Bill Johnson to the question of trimming may have not been able to be dislodged from how his salary was being pegged to safety performance, as much as responsible maintenance.

Judge Alsup had ominously warned the corporation it would be bad in the docket come December, wen the number of wildfires PG&E started would be reckoned, and he hoped it would be none: the expectation were balanced by the significant bonuses Johnson would gain if he created conditions to allow the stock of the utility company bounce back to the heights they enjoyed in 2017. And the power of PG&E to shut power of temporarily to 500,000 and ten 800,000 Californians provoker indignation but were won as a right to announce “public safety power shut off” with little warning was won, without being imagined to be used in such an aggressive and proactive fashion as Johnson and his Board seem to have done, raising questions about the current corporate culture of PG&E, if it had committed to “only consider proactively turning off power when the benefits of de-energization outweigh potential public safety risks.” These benefits were not only regarding safety, but the dangers of being found negligent in managing the energy infrastructure.

The problems of fire management that this mapping of fires revealed was both problematic, and difficult to respond to: PG&E asked–or demanded?–the ability to shut off power in high-velocity winds in response. The consequences were not only personal inconveniences. They may well have compromised valuable cancer research on temperature-controlled cultures within a week of conclusion, costing 500K and countless hours of lab work, as controlled experiment were rushed to San Francisco. Even if a warning on October 9 let folks know that the private energy agency “continues to warn of a power outage,” the absence of anything like expectations of such a shut-off or even plans to deal with the web traffic that meant that the “inconsistent” and at time “incorrect” information on the PG&E website, which would continually crash due to high volume of folks seeking information urgently, led to a broad swath of apologies that however refused to admit any underlying fault–“I do apologize for the hardship this has caused but I think we made the right call on safety,” said CEO Johnson, who arrived at PG&E only recently from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and installed a new Board: Johnson is a proud long-time Grateful Dead fan, but may be more conscious his salary was tied to safety performance than California topography or corporate ethics, and expected that the state would rapidly accept a declaration of fire emergency.

Perhaps the arrival of winds didn’t inaugurate a “fire season,” however, but revealed a new aspect of the electrical infrastructure about which no clear working process had been devised or imagined. If such winds inaugurated the “fire season” in California, this was now not an issue to be addressed by thinning forests or environmental management alone–the large carbon loads of forests had gained an increased vulnerability to high-charge electric sparks, in ways that had exponentially expanded the vulnerability of the landscape to fire, and risk of firestorms,–

–of the very sort that had generated ever more terrifying images around the time of the Camp Fire of statewide fire risk; winds that created conditions for the fire fanned the flames further, at higher velocities, to create firestorms and new management challenge of fire whirls, or vortices of flames of extreme heat intensity.

Did it all start with dry winds, or with carbon loads, or with live electric lines suspended in what were revealed to be dangerously unstable ways? Heat maps of the nature of air quality became seared into northern California residents’ minds.

Mapbox Heat Map of Smoke Emissions of Camp Fire

The high gusts running through trees that received far less water or snowpack than in previous years, the deep worries both among PG&E administrators who balanced their abilities of oversight of the electrical infrastructure with their public responsibility, was mirrored in the haunted nature of the Northern California residents who had seen increasing numbers of fire men stream into the areas near Chico, Sacramento, and the North Bay or the Sierras and Yosemite each Fire Season like clockwork in previous years–in ways oddly dissonant with bucolic green surroundings.

This time round, the temperature anomaly alone had offered some guide to prediction of the eventuality of future fires, but provided little guideposts to the possibility of managing the situation at hand. The arrival of winds were terrifying, and not only to PG&E. The gustiness of local winds seem new indices that will mediate all future responses to what Daniel Swain called the ongoing firestorm of California, and are destined to filter our future collective reactions to future fires’ spread.

While the maps of outages seem to convey a weird spectral sort of precision, they suggest an architecture of emergency response that blankets all areas of the now legendary woodlands-urban periphery with darkness, as if in an attempt to rationalize the impending outages that have been paralleled with offers to set up cell phone charging stations, were hardly reassuring.. Promising lavishly to set up a designated communications network with its clients and customers, that seemed a bit like not allowing the news to get into the game, preferring texts, emails, and robocalls as a way of staying in touch and broadcasting emergency to folks who it assumed would have fully charged phones–because who lets their phones run low–though it wasn’t clear communications could continue if outages lasted the full “five days or longer” as announced. The company had its own private team of meteorologists, to prevent any redundancy from designated communication with the NWS or NOAA. But trust us, POG&E seemed to say–as Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, put it, “some of our customers may experience a power shutoff even though the weather conditions in their specific location are not extreme.”

The memories of the Camp Fire created a sense of disorientation before the impending arrival of high winds, which triggered a memory of the massive destruction of property and loss of lives even as the much of the nation is distracted on other media sources, and indeed by greater problems of irresponsibility. With the memories of the Camp Fire and to the North Bay Fires of the fixed in our head, from the toxic air they across the city, to streams of refugees who lost their homes, we had only just started to face the first evidence of the start of a new fire season in smoke from the first fires, which only last year had made Northern California site of the worst air quality the world, as we studied maps of how the Firefighters have made progress containing the deadly Camp Fire was tired to be contained. As we tracked the fear of fires growing not only near Los Angeles, but near Chico,

we faced a new beast in the unprecedented power shut-offs that became a possibility for hundreds of thousands of customers of the utility company over the last week, a highly controversial act that enabled power to be preventively cut to regions in California that we tracked through loopy maps of potential shutoffs, shown in alientating map layers that seemed to glow with radioactivity, as the authority of the utilities company had assumed in public life in California, elevated after a series of mismanagements or mishaps, meant that the combat of ever-present fire threats extended to the disruptive dangers posed by power shut-offs, perhaps strategic.

But the maps offered no clear logic to their arrival or creation, though they seemed to follow global curvature, akin Bowie net, though the GPS loops didn’t also overlap so often, and derive from power lines on a local level. The threat of interruptions of electricity seemed issues of global importance, altering access to electricity and shifting many to local generators–even closing the University of California for a few days until wind levels died down.

The large, privately held public utility company elected, with winds forecast from Wednesday through Thursday to reach velocities as high as sixty to seventy mph at taller elevations of the state, to adopt what was called “PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the ignition of wildfires during high-risk periods”–presumably because it was in bankruptcy, more than or as much as a form of public protection, at a time that PG&E has its back up against the wall. The widespread “voluntary” withdrawal of power supply was due to a failure of risk management, and the dangers of firestorms that could not be contained. The threat of electrical transmissions lines malfunctioning, collapsing, or igniting brush–as had begun the conflagration known as the Camp Fire of 2018 and the Tubbs Fire and the North Bay Fires of 2017, lead Berkeley residents to be asked to evacuate the Hills–an area where evacuation would be judged difficult in an actual emergency. The extensive elderly population dependent on life-sustaining electrical medical equipment–oxygenators; dialysis machines; ventilators–whose loss of power could pose diastrous health risks. Even the announcement of power loss could trigger panic sending customers into a tail spin.

Since the potential outage map on the PG&E website first appeared, and before it crashed, significant panic grew as the need to follow a careful protocol seemed absent in the energy corporation’s plans. The maps revealed in complex if simple fashion a blanketing of many of the areas of the Berkeley Hills-based on what must have been the newly launched website PG&E had devised to help customers prepare for wildfires readiness, and indeed presented to the Berkeley City Council this past July about the potential for emergency ‘public safety power shutoffs’ and presumably also the need to develop a strategic response given the problems of residents who relied on electricity for medical devices, cel towers, and city reservoirs, who would all be thrown into disarray in the eventuality of a “public safety shutoff” that the energy company had recently acquired–or been forced–to adopt. The sort of outage map that PG&E distributed were low on actual information, and rich with apparent looniness and difficulty to read,–

–the image of state-wide potential outages even more generic at such small scale. The map is more suggestive of targeting of sites of past ties created by sparks from wind-driven fallen transmission lines or as a result of the sudden collapse during high winds of aging electrical infrastructure. All state residents were alerted to update their contact information to receive more local bulletins at pge.com/mywildfirealerts, a dedicated communications infrastructure over which PG&E held all strings; any possibility of confused communications was sought to be contained–as was that of examination of the protocol for delivering information.

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Clipping Bears Ears

The recent demotion of Bear’s Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands.  The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the proprietary relation to public lands that he seeks to instill by removing protected lands of national monuments like Bears Ears stands sadly at odds with the longstanding image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space–although the decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.

 

Trump and Wayne in western backdrop.jpg

 

For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries.  With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.

The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries.  For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.

 


Protection of National Monument of Bears Ears would expand claims to native lands in Southern Utah/Joe Burgess for New York Times

 

In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.

The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America.

 

image.png

 

The rewriting of what constitutes a national monument is quite a sense of a sharp change in history, marked by an inevitable separation of the landscape from the past.  The shift of Bears Ears from a site worthy of conservation,seems definitively erased as the revelation of the minerals, oil, and gas that lie beneath the ground within the earlier boundaries of the former National Monument.  The possibilities of extraction had been mapped in surveys of the mineral resources of the region, which focus not on the delicate nature of its environment; the map of minerals ignores sacred remains lying on the surface in its boundaries, and foreground them, rather than the delicate ecosystem of animals and pure water.  Indeed, its pollution would irreparably compromise the region, and replace the reasons cited for its historical and cultural value to its exchange value.

Are we in danger of mipmapping not only our national patrimony, but future?  It is almost as if Trump is following a new map, provided by the extractive industries with which he has thrown in his lot.  And in place of preserving individual sites of antiquity, this map shifts from the above-the-ground complex ecosystem and archeological ruins previously cited as warranting protection for future generations and for the nation:  what was a “good” for the nation is in the course of being redefined, as the underground “goods” able to be extracted displace those lying on the surface of a bioregion of southeastern Utah currently in danger of being compromised–even as the newest national monument in the intermountain desert protected by Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition largely in recognition of widespread evidence of its historic inhabitation.  While Trump argues at his own tribal rallies, exultantly insisting “we’re into [clean air and water” also, folks–but you don’t have to turn off all business!” even as the EPA rolls back clean air and water rules, the absence of attention to environmental preservation in the national monument is striking and mind boggling, if not a relinquishing of duty.

By revoking the region’s status as a national monument, and reducing the protected area to almost 80 percent of the current Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument by 45 percent, Trump has divided Bears Ears into two smaller regions, to allow access to the red, mineral-rich areas, in particular, following on the recommendations of his Interior Secretary drastically to shift the status of a considerable range of national monuments that would include the historic mesas.

 

 

The new geography of the national monument suggests a vision that is stubbornly and insistently reduced to mineral resources, flattening the historical value of the region and replacing any sense of its place by mapping it at a dangerous remove, and foregrounding the value of its industrial resources above its landscape.  Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History could not see the destruction of the open spaces of lands until after they have occurred, of course, at which point they lie at the feet of the Angelus Novus, who is propelled forward in time, seeing only the wreckage at his feet; but the rewriting of the material relation to the land–and the symbolic relation to the land–constitute a broad remapping of the place of the west and western lands within our minds.  If labor was the exploitation of nature for Benjamin, the exploitation of nature rests both on material labor, but the remapping of the landscape we once saw as part of historical memory as a nation to a material resource, destined to be opened to a growing energy market, and be converted into petroleum and gas.  Trump has, in short, turned his back on any romantic concept of the open spaces of the west, with some uncertainty, as he seems to take a step into an unknown future of open access to energy resources mapped as lying under these once hallowed grounds, which stand to become transformed into an industrialized landscape, and changed beyond recognition, without a sense of what we have lost.

We are in danger of losing any sense of the picture on the ground.  The map of resources seems to compromise the map of the land by local inhabitants, or indeed the picture of the region on the ground of a lived landscape, filled with rich traces, and freshwater streams, that has long held status as a sacred site in our national imaginary as a frontier.

 

Wlderness Photography Bears Ears

 

The accelerated arrival of an entirely new relation to the land, as extractive industries that has been used to demote Bears Ears from a nationoal monument stands to transform open spaces that were once identified with the mythos of the nation.  The resulting removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites:  it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the value in a society which uses GPS to map locations on a UTM projection to locate mineral deposits and sites of potential petroleum drilling–and erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony.  For by reducing the land set aside in the National Monument to questions of cash flow, the administration seems to have decided to use a map to abstract the Bears Ears area to the value of resources hidden beneath its historic landscape.

 

Mesas of the Valley of the Gods in former Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah/Alex Goodlett for The New York Times

 

The revisionary mapping of public lands that has occurred within the Trump administration is no less than a dramatic revision of national priorities.  It reveals something like an amnesia of the relation to the land, now seen as an antiquated practice of political regulation, and a rhetoric of opening valuable historical regions to mineral prospecting, in ways that no President has ever elected to disrespect one of his predecessors by rescinding the area of a designated monument that a president has decided to set aside.  In ways that shifts our relation to our own futures and pasts, the remove of the landscape suggests a remapping of priorities and space, removing protections from red rock canyons where some 10,000 artifacts remain.  As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states.  Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value.  In ways that reflect the deep anger at the protection lands negotiated by the Obama administration–and done so in a way that tried to involve community stakeholders over time, if concluded late in the Obama Presidency–and the obscuring of claims historically made from 1976-2010 alone in the region once defined as Bears Ears–

Bears_Ears_MiningClaims_1997-2010.jpg

–the division of the national monument into two rumps opens many of the areas where mining claims  were staked, and allows further claims to be made, as well as encourages easy transport of extracted materials from the historic grounds, by denying their claims to historical value.  Indeed, by reopening many of the BLM claims on the region, the decision to parse Bears Ears from a continuous monument seems a give-away to extractive industries.

The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity.  Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of  the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value.  When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.

 

Bears Ears Buttes Big expanseGeorgy Frey, Getty Images/National Geographic

 

Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument 

 

Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry.  The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness.  Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any federal mandate to protect historic lands, as well as to allow the expansion of extraction across previously protected lands?

When Interior Secretary Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats.  Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed.  Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west.  For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value.  The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.

 

 

Reduced Monuments

 

The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground.  Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, sporting a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, in a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen:  the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, ready to remap most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence:  if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West.  But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.

 

Zinke Goes to Work.png

 

Zinc’s cultivation of the image of a cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing.  For his policies he adopts run rampant over protection of the most fragile federal lands.   And despite presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.

The redrawing of Bears Ears is isolated, but foretells a terrible vision of the curtailment of federal lands by future leasing, drilling, and mining–at the same time as curtailing access to parks by substantially raising their entrance fees nationwide.  Nowhere are the fears of opening lands to drilling more feared than in the Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.   Yet under the quixotic directive of ensuring “American energy dominance” the koan of the Trump administration, and the meaningless slogan “Energy Is Good,” the charge to remove regulations on coal, drilling, and oil pipelines are cast as a means to confirm our prosperity and energy independence as a nation, in deeply misguided ways that are based only on doublespeak, but epitomized by the withdrawal of any sense of custody for the increased scarcity of undisturbed open lands, or an obligation to future Americans.

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Deep Blue Openings in an Increasingly Sound-Filled World

The detection of sound provides a primary registers by which we are able to judge spatial relations and experience space.  But sensitivity to auditory sensations may be increasingly compromised to orient ourselves across much of the country; the epidemic of the extinction of “quite places” in the modern world has created a deep alienation form sounds of place, even as we can continue to map place, and a dramatic contraction of auditory horizons by which we perceive the world.   Increasingly impacted by a barrage of anthropogenic sounds, the alienation that is increasingly common from natural ecosystems of sound, and predominance of sound pollution, has led acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton to devote increasing energies to making sound recordings of areas of natural sound ecologies of the Northwest in Washington State’s Olympic peninsula.  The region, one of the few “deep blue” areas in recent mappings of increasingly elevated sound-polluted areas indelibly shape the acoustic and indeed neurological experience of place across the nation.  Registering the increasing presence of anthropogenic noice along thresholds of decibel levels creates an image of the dramatic contraction of sound horizons that Hempton is so interested in preserving.  The below map, created by computer algorithms, reveal a distribution that has rightly commanded increasing attention upon its release in no smart because of the recognizable mirror it lifts to our own world of a landscape–here, the soundscape is visibly rendered as a landscape that offers few spaces of blue in which to lose oneself–of the shrinking auditory horizons of most.

After synthesizing about 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring, the below representation of noise-levels across the nation’s roadways create a portrait of sounds likely to be heard on an average summer day presents an image of the extent of places where one can expect to encounter aural intrusions.  The flyover view illustrates shifting decibel levels across the continuous forty-eight states, but most strikingly reveals the rare places marked by an absence of human-made sound.  The almost inevitable infiltration of anthropogenic noises is only poised to grow further in coming years, standing to change our experience of place and how we inhabit the world.

The unprecedented registration of sound-levels mapped across the country and rendered by computer algorithms is a significant achievement, but a benchmark of human geography.  The shifting hues of blues used to map the registration of sounds at above-average decibel levels reveal a significant diffusion of high levels of background sound across the nation–and suggests the radical changes our national soundscape has experienced in recent decades.  For background noises have become an almost inescapable aspect of daily life.  While registration of auditory differences in ambient sound across space have rarely been able to be charted with such precision, the resulting map shows a national both distinguished by far higher sound-levels than the past, and a diffusion of human-made sounds spreading from megacities to the rural hinterland, leaving diminishing differences between the two:  the near-absence of lands removed from human-made sound across much of the land suggests a radical remaking of our auditory world, as loudness is no longer clearly localized.  Rather than reflecting clear boundaries, the almost inescapable nature of noise-levels across much of the Eastern seaboard, midwest, and west coast lights expanses by a dim sulphuric glow, confining “wilderness”–if by that we mean by that a space where we can listen to hawks cry, hear water running in streams, rustling grasses, the conversation of rainwater with leaves, or insects’ buzz–to a small regions of deep blue that roughly match the largest national parks.  Who’s to say that this is not a shift as significant as climate change?

The rising levels of human-generated background noise across the country may constitute a health risk, given established links between sound-levels and blood pressure; the near-ubiquity auditory interference also suggests a significant compromising of our sensitivities to the particularities of place that seems both particularly troubling and of historical note as a change in our lived environment and auditory atmosphere.

USA sound map in decibelsScienceNews

 

While reflecting human density, the map is not only a reflection of population centers–although it does map onto them–but of ambient noise.  And it is even more revealing not of where noise is concentrated, than on where it is absent–those deep blue openings on the map.

 

2000_Population_Distribution.jpgU.S. Census Map/Population Distribution, United States

 

The rapid expansion of anthropogenic noise has profoundly altered the national soundscape, and indeed made the protected aural environments that suggest the limited success of the management of sound a generation after the 1972 Noise Control Act set a standards of local and regional acoustical management.  The acoustic data was processed by computerized algorithms to exclude local street traffic as well as variable air sounds of jets that predicts spatial differentials in the levels of unavoidable local background sound even without such outside intrusions.  Human-made noise has not only outstripped population growth; the growth in rising ambient sounds has surpassed three decibel levels is perceptible in almost two thirds of the protected regions and National Parks–roughly mirroring that region of greater natural sounds, not accounting for sounds likely to be soon unleashed by the expansion of hydraulic fracking, pipeline construction, drones, and the expanding density of air travel.

The portrait of our decreasingly differentiated auditory environments raises the stakes for preserving secluded spaces that will undoubtedly compromise our own future sense of space.  To be sure, the notion of a comprehensive acoustical monitoring of the entire continuous United States is not possible, and would require far more funds than the National Parks Services has at its disposal.  But the picture that emerged of a shrinking space of silence–and a shrinking space of focussing on “natural” sounds, not generated by humans, is striking.  Even as we receive increasing recommendations from ecotherapists urging us to act to remedy widespread affliction by nature deficit disorder by immersing ourselves in greater sensory engagement, and ecopsychologists note the health benefits of hearing leaves rustling or wind through trees, the map paints a picture of a future of radically reduced horizons for auditory engagement with unavoidable nature of anthropogenic noise.  The illumination of up to half of the nation, if not two-thirds of its inhabited areas, by striking bursts of yellow suggest an encroaching inescapability of noise that may compromise our sense of space:   with refuges to experience soundscapes under thirty decibels of loudness increasingly rare, ecotherapists may be conducting some seriously long distance guided trips.  One’s eyes are drawn to those deep blue spaces of repose in select areas of the inner recesses of national parks, but one is simultaneously struck by their distance from the environment where one lives.

The imagined soundscape without the presence of humans–or filtering all anthropogenic sound–would reveal a national soundscape pronouncedly divided into relatively noisier eastern and significantly more silent western halves, reflecting the greater inhabitation of the half of  the country east of the deserts:  this seems almost an auditory Continental Divide.  When Kurt Fristrup and Daniel Mennitt of Colorado State University of Fort Collins sought to map a landscape of differentials in “natural” sound across the country, they used it as a sort of base-map on which future data levels could be read:  indeed, one can distinguish the deep green swirls of sounds of the Mississippi, silences of mountain ranges, and noisy coasts–but an expansive stretches of silence across most of the region west of the Continental Divide.

 

scivis_graphNational Park Services Natural Sounds and Night Skies

One can usefully compare it to the contacting regions of the forested United States, based on this 2012 remotely sensed map of the woody biomass of the continuous United States, released by NASA’s Earth Observatory and created by computer modeling, that reveals the growing expanse of those regions permeable to extensive infiltration by sound.

Woody Biomass from NASA 1999-2002

NASA

 

One might compare it to horticulturalist and dendrologist C. S. Sargent’s 1884 comprehensive mapping of the density of US Forests, now digitized by David Rumsey, which presented the first detailed survey of the sort, to note the decline in tree-cover across the Great Plains and Mississippi, as well as the Great Lakes:

 

United States Density of Existing Forests 1884

Wired; from Rumsey Collections

The map of “natural” sounds reveals the levels of under 40 decibels marks a threshold in the intrusion of an array of anthropogenic sounds, one that reflects the changes of how we now inhabit the continent, and how we perceive the inhabitation of space, that might be compared to Global Warming in its cascading effects of how sound spreads across its sonic space.

 And in creating a synthesis of sound-levels across the nation, Frist has not only set something of a high watermark in the sound-drenched nature of our landscape.  The marked change across the national soundscape that Fristrup has helped chart based on 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring reveals a shift in hearing that seems on the level of that described by visualizations of the alarming local rises in regional temperatures across the nation, which providing apparent evidence of an inevitable process of global warming:  the maps below seems to suggest similarly ineluctible changes of the anthropocene at the nation’s edges that we have only begun to track, although the causation of such environmental impact to a release of greenhouse gasses is less clearly mapped in terms of causation, and human agency less readily determined than the registration of something that seems like climate change.

 

RISING TemperaturesNew York Times

Rather than consuming the edges of the country, as the above visualization of rising temperatures across the nation as evidence of impending global warming from the New York Times, noise encroaches on the country from the more populated areas more often located on its coasts and eastern shoreline.  The region providing platforms to the world is not organized as a clear workspace or a set of clear property lines, but as corporate entities and logos, and where the bulk of the wealth produced has proved increasingly elusive for many of its residents.  But the expansion across much of the nation’s soundscape by human generated sounds reveals what an analogous trend of man-driven change, if one that one can map with fine grain, and which impacts our perception of local experience in ways that seem more easy to measure and render at fine grain.

For the compromise of the sonic sensorium across much of the country suggests the degraded sonic environment we are transmitting to future generations.  The map of the auditory landscape across the United States suggests the emergence of sizable and rapidly growing rifts on the amount of audible sound to which we are daily exposed that seem as prominent as a Continental Divide:   radically different soundscapes in different parts of the country suggest a country increasingly plagued by noise–middle America or what was once known as the Midwest is distinguished by almost ubiquitous manmade background noise; intense acoustic shocks are rendered as bright corridors of noise run along Eastern seaboard of notably high loudness; only pockets of western parks, rendered as deep blue expanses in the interior, are distinguished by sound-levels of less than 20 decibels.  The Acoustic Society of America used some 270,000 hours of measurements across 190 sites in the country’s National Parks in the contiguous United States to assess an initial picture of levels of ambient human noise that seem all but inescapable in the U.S.  If the 1972 Noise Control Act was directed to strengthen legal protections against “unwanted or disturbing sound” to regulate noise pollution, sound-levels seem  so widespread across the nation to be hard to distinguish how unwanted sounds adversely affects one’s quality of life as unwanted disturbances.  Yet we now have a means to visualize the collective rises in ambient sound in ways that are truly as compelling as maps of global warming.

The change in our aural landscapes has gone largely unremarked, in part because the data is less easily available, and visualizations were long less able to be confidently rendered in such clear detail–or the amount of data not able to be clearly synthesized.  Even at first seeing the map of sound levels in the nation released by workers at the National Parks Services in past weeks, it’s hard not to be drawn to these scattered refuges that lurk inside the map, as we shun the bursting supernovas of  aggressively bright yellow whose streaks across the overstimulated sonic landscape where most of us live.  The brightness of areas in which greater levels of sound were sensed seem to push us to the relatively few remaining quiescent places in the continent:  it is not that they remind us of just how fully the sounds of motorized vehicles have come to penetrate most of our auditory worlds most of the time, but that they seem so ever-present and so visually loud, even when the levels of sound seem to fade miasmatically into the midwest, but reflect the growing population centers across the country that undoubtedly generate the greatest noise.  The map creates a compelling picture about how we can interpret the current distribution of populations as filling the nation’s space.

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Ex01_Mega-Region-Population_500pxMartin Prosperity

 

Much of the attention that the map has received respond to just how rarely sound-levels have been so closely integrated–or so clearly shown to overlap–with the mapping of an environmental space, or so compellingly integrated within an understanding of environmental change.

The question of registering an atlas of urban sounds have most often responded to less to subjective or individual perception than public policy issues that surround very specific local levels sonic pollution in urban environments from San Francisco to Oslo, based on visualizing noise levels across urban streets through GIS-based simulations that synthesize variations in decibel levels over time–and reflect a desire to control urban noise that even predate the Industrial Revolution, and which, R. Murray Shafer has found, there is evidence in Bern back in 1628, but which computerized maps provide a basis to visualize the results of such acoustical monitoring today.

 

SF NOISE MAP

San Francisco

cus_figure18

Oslo

Despite such concern for managing urban soundscapes, less attention has focussed on comprehensively mapping endangered sounds–and even less on the endangering of silence, which have not been often imagined as a comprehensible object of concern.  Attempts at mapping local sound-levels for reasons of public health have focussed on a local level to assess problems of noise pollution and to assess aural impositions in urban spaces–and to measure benchmarks of tolerable sound-levels in urban space.  We more often consider noise abatement in relation to crowded restaurants than open spaces or countryside.   The registration of a varying range of decibel levels across the United States created the opportunity to visualize a color-coded record of ambient sound, grouped according to spatially situated environments, applied a broad palette to geographic space based on a much larger dataset, and one that responds less to problems of placing future projects of construction than measuring the increasing ubiquity of sound-levels often linked to urban environments across the country.

The innovation of the NPS sound map of the country’s less inhabited and more densely inhabited regions presents a particularly persuasive picture of the extent of the growing uniform nature of our aural environments.  Based on the 1.5 million hours of motoring across the country to capture  sound levels sensed on an average summer day, researchers with the National Parks Service have collated an impressive acoustic topography of the continental United States in hopes to map average decibel levels across the country, and found few areas of relative quiet.  The result is particularly striking for suggesting deep scars of sound that radiate aglow from urban agglomerations in a heat map of loudness that registers the diffusion of human-made noise levels across the country, and the extent to which much of its illuminated center is flooded with ever-present background sounds–acoustic pools, as it were, of almost 50 dB, or able to drown most natural sounds from animals.  If the sound map created from algorithms suggests just how urbanized we are today, and how far urban noise-levels extend across much of the country, it offers evidence of the auditory effects of anthropocene from which there appears no turning back.

USA sound map in decibels

The picture does not look good for the future of quiet spaces in most of the coterminous United States.  The stars and streaks of aggressively bright sulfuric levels of smoky yellow–indicating concentrations in urban areas of a level of 51 decibels or more–maps clearly onto population concentrations from the shores of Lake Michigan to Dallas, Atlanta or central Florida.  The noise map reveals huge differences in noise tolerance and indeed background noise that most Americans experience as normal, and indeed the auditory expectations most bring to their days, and the relative absence of silence over a large part of the inhabited country that noise has infiltrated, from a light gauze of yellow that surrounds are largest farming industries to the clusters of noise around expansive urban areas.  In those deep blue swirling patches of the interior lie the most silent spots of the country,abysses of quiet which register the lowest absolute levels of sonic interference, far from the pollution of urban noise which seems to spread like age spots across much of the eastern half of the continent.  (The very deepest deep blue regions designate areas of background noise below twenty decibels, the sound of a ticking watch, far below  the  a refrigerator hum, and very far from the ever-present ring of cell phones, piercing blasts of jack hammers or car alarms, freeway rumble or such sudden spikes as sawing concrete that now seem to so often mark the hubbub of urban life that is often difficult to blank out save by white noise machines.)  A considerable share of the population must be quite habituated to an almost constant loudness of almost fifty dB, or about that of constant traffic–and just below that which is claimed to increase high blood pressure, tension, and heart attack risks.

Remapping the limited areas of low-level sounds top stand out more dramatically in black as isolated islands of greatest quiet gives the map an even clearer urgency as a manifesto for the shrinking spaces of silence across the continuous United States:

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The map advances a narrative of the shrinking areas of silence in the soundscape of the continental United States that is decidedly not rosy, and in which levels of noise pollution stand to double or indeed triple every twenty years, making this a particularly troubling prospect that challenges the future of silence in America.  Not so surprisingly, it maps well onto a randomized map forecasting air quality across the nation in its contours, although variations in the NPS soundscape in the header to this post show more finely grained variations and seems to exploit a broader dataset.

 

Feb 20 AQI

 

 

The deep discrepancies in decibel levels however bears little clear correlation to the current mosaic of political preference across the continuous forty-eight, however Lamarckian one would like to be about the relation between collective preferences and aural environments.  Despite a tendency to link weaker support for Republicans with louder areas of greater ambient noise, the data just doesn’t bear it out in full at all:  some of the reddest areas are those register considerably greater decibel levels.  (Low support for Republicans in Maine contrast with its predominantly low levels of ambient sound; noisy areas of the South are pretty darn red, despite strikingly diverse levels of ambient sound registered in those states; noise-levels in California’s central valley are roughly equal the blueness of its coast.)

 

 

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The narrative that the soundscape implies is far from rosy, however.  What seems most frightening is the lack of any clear map of the future penetration of high decibel levels across much of middle America.  Along the frontier of the decibel divide, much of the nation’s center appears flooded dark yellow; Denver, St. Lake City, Las Vegas and Boise seem beacons in an expanding aural frontier, burning bright already in Seattle and Olympia.  The registration of these ambient sounds include not only vehicles, but from factories, radios, sirens, televisions, construction sites, trains, or mechanically generated sound of any kind, registering the range of overlapping sounds at any space at any time, in a manner more like Zefrey Throwell’s 1,000-car-horn symphony than the heterogeneous ensemble of percussionists György Ligeti enlisted in his Grand Macabre.

But the origins of the shifting soundscape in the nation might be better tracked through the appeal of the Good Roads movement of Charles Henry Davis, that industrious Quaker who lived in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, but founded the National Highways Association in 1911, promoting the hope for an interconnected National Highway System of 50.000 miles “built, owned and maintained by the National Government,” which while limited at that time to six great “Main Highways,” advocated an image of “a paved Unites States in our day” that has persisted.   The benefits Davis saw in paved roads as an engine of economy that would raise the nation were more than only an infrastructure–“national highways will increase the wealth, the power, and the importance of this country as nothing else can do besides that which has brought civilization to the savage, wealth to the poor, and happiness to all–GOOD ROADS”–but an image of collective benefit.  The continued promotion of their benefits, so removed from views of the benefits of preserving place today, actively promoted the benefit of the ideal of a “paved United States in our day.”   Indeed, if all road maps were promoted in 1912 from South Yarmouth as useful tools that “will prove of inestimable value to the proposed national highways commission, and in addition will be of service in showing the people of each state how the national government can make use of their roads in the proposed plan” as of a piece with a bucolic vision of the nation.

 

Davis 1912.pngDavis, Good Roads Everywhere (1912)

 

Maps boosted the image of a national system of highways, and indeed our sense of access to national space, from the 1925 promotional map that synthesized the roadways of the nation as an invitation to their exploration to celebrate the achievement of 250,000 miles of national highway–

 

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–to the expansion of the “Good Roads Everywhere” movement creating a “paved United States in our day” as if it were “peace in our time.”

 

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Looking at the nation’s soundscape, it’s hard not to be drawn to the chasms of deep blue where sound levels decrease.  National Parks Services’ researchers took some shots when they compared these areas without background noise to the notion of traveling back in time to the sound-levels before Columban contact–on their apparent ignoring of the dense population of the continent before its “discovery”–one might see it as the sonar landscape Lewis and Clark experienced with the collection of animal trackers and Native Americans which composed the Corps of Discovery,  traveling down the Columbia river or pausing in their portages:  these are the areas distinguished with a sound level of lower than twenty decibels, areas where one can access a pristine auditory experiences characterized by the near-absence of the background noises that we are tempted to screen out of our auditory experiences,–and against which would stand out the perception of local wildlife.

The attractiveness of these seemingly pristine places not only provides a compelling advertisement for visiting national parks during whatever summer vacations one might have, but is a compelling soundscape of a world not likely to return, where decibel levels fall far below the fifty that almost seem low for urban areas, the deep blue recalling something like the cold of oceans’ depths.  Created by the National Parks’ Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, it reflects their mission statement to create an inventory of sound that seeks to preserve “acoustic and night sky environments unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” Fristrup worries, and provides something of a watermark on our aural environments, but it is also intended as a diagnostic tool to measure the degree to which manmade noises affect owls and bats who depend on locating insects to find food–the somewhat synesthetic record renders an acoustic environment married by bright yellow splotches and sulphuric streaks, and ubiquitous noise levels comparable to hearing a washing machine churn from a distance of three feet away.

The ever-present scars of unwanted sound spread aggressively in almost radial fashion from major population centers and seem diffused across many the rural areas of the country.  The maps suggests the auditory compromises created by the road network which generates ever-present background noise across the continent’s more inhabited areas, even if the algorithm used to generate it discounted traffic, with non-human made sounds of wind and water.  Rather than present a watermark of sound levels, the map bodes poorly for the growing levels of volume in years to come.  If much of this noise-generated hearing loss perhaps on account of noise-levels artificially generated in iPods and MP3 players which funnel amplified sound into directly our ears–and which may have helped elevate the number of five million 12-19 year olds who have compromised hearing thresholds, according to Dangerous Decibels–a site which is full of tips on living with hearing loss and the risks of noise-induced hearing loss–the desensitization to environmental sounds that the map charts creates a landscape where even those without Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) have a compromised relation to their environments.

But the map suggests the changing nature of outdoor hearing for most populations, compromised by the rise of background noise, and the deep penetration of what used to be considered urban sounds of mechanized movements across much of the country.

USA sound map in decibels

Reading the stark topography of sound levels across the lower forty-eight, one is indeed almost instinctively tempted to run into its scattered pockets of deepest blues:  these seem the safest areas of respite, as one shrinks from the bright incandescent yellows of even a tolerable amount of ever-present background noise–maybe not to the deserts of southwest Texas, but if not to the national parks bordering California, in the Cascades, the Colorado Plateau, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Dinosaur National Monument between Colorado and Utah, and in the Great Basin.  (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that some of these ecosystems, many home to Native Americans, were to be preserved “from injury or spoliation” by the National Parks, preserved thanks to Carl Shurz, David Brower and Howard Zahniser.  Is the aural intrusion not a deep form of injury?)

One might as well get out a paper map of the greenspace in parks to correlate them with the deep blue lakes of silence .  . .

 

National_parks_trails_map

 

 

 

It is almost difficult to imagine the experience of those deep blue areas of silence today.

The expansive chromolithographies of Thomas Moran depict deeply hidden, inner resources of nature in sites such as the future Yellowstone or Zion Park, preserved from industrializing life of in ways that raised interest in the hidden landscapes of the United States, after he had accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden on the 1871 Geographic Survey of the Territories, in ways that created one of the first romantic images to produce a popular movement for the protection of a landscape as undisturbed.  One is struck in Moran’s monumental landscapes by how these awesome environments dwarf their  human visitors, arriving in what seem uninhabited lands, far from the noise of railroads or cities in the industrializing United States:

 

 

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Thomas Moran, “The Valley of the Babbling Waters, Southern Utah” (1873) 18.71.14

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Thomas Moran, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1875) 18.71.8

 

 

visit_ynp_moran_18.71.1lrg

 

 

These are the ideals of We now look at the romance of arriving at deep blue spots in the algorithmically generated soundscape, far removed from Moran’s monumental renderings of geographical formations that first communicated a sense of the natural majesty of the western United States to a large audience of viewers that communicated the wonder of a landscape he saw as both untouched and pristine, in contrast to the ever-present ambient noise that seems not only inescapable in remote regions of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park but all but inescapable in much of the U.S.

But the levels of noise pollution that illuminate or almost incandescently light much of the country marks the encroaching of an auditory anthropocene from which there will be no turning back, and which has already altered the landscape as well as soundscape of the country.  The spatial collation of audio registrations finds most people live in environments “where night skies and soundscapes are profoundly degraded, Fristrup notes, describing the extent of both sound and noise “pollution” as almost spanning the continent, where median background noise plagues most, out of a desire to “conserve natural sensory environments for future generations” registers his deep and abiding sense of loss and the inevitability of a landscape of increasing auditory degradation that could bring a generation of “learned deafness” destined to dull one to the very soundscapes National Parks seek to conserve–and the notion of such environmentally provoked desensitization to sound seems backed by the datum that some 10 million people in the United States were judged, in 1999, to have permanent hearing loss from noise or trauma.  Are we becoming increasingly hard of hearing or deaf, or in danger of slowly losing a sense by which humans have long interacted with the world and gave meaning to it?

The argument has had special resonance–no pun intended.  The map that was quickly shared upwards of 10.9 K times record penetration of high decibel levels (above 40) across much of the country’s inhabited land–and the rarity of those deep blue chasms that seem to almost fall through the map.  Although the idea that they record the sound environment of the country before Columbus is doubtful, and not only because of the folly of thinking that it was not inhabited before 1492, the absence of industrial ambient background noise over a level of forty decibels is no doubt a pretty modern creation–though anthropocentric presumptions that the noise be generated by humans, rather than animals–stampedes of buffaloes?–seems more unwarranted.  But the map based on measurements of midsummer decibel levels is a unique map of how we inhabit the land, and a nice record of what we might mean now by the “inhabited world”–or ecumene.  It is a record, perhaps, of how we have chosen to inhabit space, and the ways that we have chosen to inhabit it–the landscape scarred with sound bizarrely analogous to the barren scored and spotted pock-marked lunar landscape, and the connotations of un-inhabitability it inescapably provokes in evoking this surface without life.

 

 

moon-full-moon-8-30-2012-1

The sterile landscape of the moon is an odd choice of comparison.  The worry that we may be facing the rise of a “deaf generation,” unable to hear the world as men and women once perceived natural sounds, due the growing decibel levels of constant noise in larger cities, and not be able to hear or register the natural sounds in cities, and even National Parks, has led Fristrup to worry about the threats and healthiness due to increases in ambient noise and wonder if future generations might not even appreciate the sounds of nature in cities or National Parks.  If such fears seem alarmist, they are reflected in the deep attraction most observers will have to the deep blue identified with tranquility–and with restfulness or even curl health–an association according with the profound healthful benefits of silence.

Fears of a growing disconnect with aural experiences makes the strong similarity between the scoring of the national soundscape and the lunar landscape somehow appropriate.  For the scientific synesthesia that results suggests how we’ve filled the continent with sound, from jack hammers to jet airplanes to trucks to power mowers to daily traffic to sanitation trucks to bird-calls.  The sonic landscape closely corresponds to the expansion of manmade environments across the continent, and ignore the level of noise that was made by earlier inhabitants.  The measurement of strong levels of sound pollution claims to screen out the traffic of nearby automobiles, but is appears to echo the very network pattern of freeways and highways that traverse the country and link cities with one another, and were no doubt privileged sites of measurement; where few or no roads exist, it seems that regions of deep blue must perforce prevail–or at least that the grids provide a basis to generate noise:  grids of streets even appear in the noise map, much as the splotches of bright yellow mark cities and sprawling urban areas that have made silence almost inaccessible for large shares of the nation’s populations without considerable geographic mobility, and moved all landscapes of deep silence far west, removed from traffic’s perpetual hum.

 

 

 

2000px-Map_of_current_US_Routes.svg

 Wikipedia

 

Only in 1970, of course, considerably more open spaces existed across the United States, if one focuses on Interstates alone across the western states:

 

 

 

The apparent density of noise may indeed be partly explained by the density of the network of highways that course across the Eastern seaboard and much of the midwest.

 

 

What might be called the “noisier half” of the United States shows an area of almost continuous noise pollution, where the “auditory horizons” have markedly shrunk in most places to but a few blocks of paved space–

 

 

Noisier places

 

 

reflects the very same region where highways define a distinctly different relation to expanse:

half highways

 

The expansion of the National Highway System across the nation is perhaps best rendered by a hand-drawn map that tries to project its future and the compromising of place that it implies, with an eye to the shrinking of the auditory human experience of place:

 

 

A Highway Map of the USA

 

 

 

For the congestion of noise, roads, and urban areas reveals an image of how we inhabit continental expanse.  We might compare the division of the country, grosso modo, to the imbalance in the density with which McDonald’s restaurants are spread across the contiguous United States, shown here by illuminated dots that reveal the proximity of fast food restaurants across the land, sometimes suggesting strikingly similar highway paths, and no doubt mirror population trends, and indeed the density of businesses:

 

 

 

mcdonalds_us-520x379

Stephen Von Worley 

 

Does space tend to collapse in interesting ways once one is less able to sense sounds?  Such levels of noise pollution offer a sonorous residue or acoustic remainder of how we have come to inhabit the world’s environment and to remake it, and register the arrival an auditory anthropocene which earlier maps have often been hard-pressed to detect.

As much as being confined to the United States, the prospect of such elevated decibel levels in areas of dense population and the modern humming of transportation networks across the country find a parallel in the noises of the global traffic networks we have created in the seas.  Indeed, the oceans seem increasingly characterized by constant presence of such noise recalls the “background hum” of oceanic shipping lanes that resounds across the oceans, by modeling a global soundscape seeks mapping the range of sounds ships create in transatlantic voyages, that seem the material reminder of the increased intensity of a global network of shipping lanes.  Such sound levels, to be sure, often obscure the cresting of waves, with the upshot of radically compromising the auditory experience of the ocean for its inhabitants–especially imperiling animals that use sounds to communicate, cetaceans from whales to dolphins, in ways that may mislead the sonar skills they have evolved to map their own courses underwater, in ways that create more than auditory interference with how they experience space.  And with noise traveling some 4.3 faster in the watery medium than in air–and traveling at an unchanging intensity over considerable distances–the gigantic impact of large-cargo vessels that generate more noise than we would often permit onshore from constantly running diesel engines creates considerable ambient noise to which different marine creatures are especially vulnerable.

A map of the auditory intrusions of passenger vessels alone that was recorded and released by NOAA based on anthropogenic noise of cruise vessels alone suggest a shifting in the oceanic environment:

 

Atl_NL__PV_0050Hz_0005m

 

 

Yet the spectrum of noise from the chronic levels of noise modeled from larger commercial vessels was far more chronic:

 

 

Atl_NL__0050Hz_0005m

And when summed, the picture that results is of a radically sonically altered and disrupted environment, apparently in ignorance of the disturbances that they create for actual (or any) ocean populations:

Atl_Sum_0050Hz_0005m_ThrdOct

 

 

The map below registers sounds that extend to a depth of 650 feet in a similar color spectrum map–which doesn’t include either seismic exploration or Navy sonar noise that add considerably to the range of ocean sounds that obscure today’s songs of humpback whales.  Indeed, if whales often base their communications over expanses of hundreds of miles through their song, whale space has undoubtedly against such background noise in a a sea with startlingly few areas absent from auditory interference.  Such changes would not only affect the cetacean populations of marine mammals as they navigate underwater transit–if von Uexküll suggests that whales are attuned to other worlds, it might be important to contemplate what they make of the ships’ apparently unavoidable background sounds, or whether they accommodate to their presence.

 

 

lead_large NOAA

If one goes to 200 Hz, a slightly different picture of the local variations in background hums emerges:

ocean sea noise global map noaa nasa decibels noise pollution marine animals mammals 200hz_NOAA

But what might be considered more broadly is the very difficulty of erasing the imprint that such ships that travel across the seas exercise over the entire marine environment. The sonorous surroundings characteristic of the oceans were earlier mapped at 400 Hz and a depth of fifty feet by NOAA in 2012, from passenger ships, commercial ships, to seismic surveys in an annual average, present a similarly pronounced offshore acoustic disturbances and an even more pronounced augmentation of background noise offshore, as if hidden from landlocked observation stations, as if ships’ engines are only started at full throttle after arriving in the open seas, where ship captains or automated pilots crank up their speeds and plow full speed ahead:

1211-sci-OCEANNOAA Underwater Mapping Sound Field Mapping Working Group/HLS Research/ NCEAS–Details of North Atlantic Shipping and local noises near Long Island–from the New York Times

 

 

The rumors of transatlantic voyages notwithstanding, it is somehow wonderful to move from the noisy oceans to their landlocked counterparts.

The deep blue sites of relative silence, often confined to the areas close to the coast, may indeed obscure the extent of noise we have created far out at sea, far from the increasingly noisy shore, where we cannot hear their hum.  The shifts in the national–as well as the global–soundscape makes one wonder whether, in obscuring some sounds or making other sounds inaudible, one is not changing perceptions of space in ways that the great majority of  data visualizations cannot register.  But both present us with digitized images of sound-levels so strikingly ever-present that we can almost hear them resonate across space.

Like the deepest blue spots on the sound map of the United States, they mark the rare areas of respite in an every-noisier world.

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Filed under anthropocene, environmental mapping, national parks, sound maps, Soundscapes