Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Displaying items by tag: Ecology http://exploreutahscience.org Tue, 23 Jan 2018 14:36:56 -0700 en-gb Sounds of the West http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Some people like to hunt animals, not to kill them, but to record the sounds they make.

Conservationists, scientists, volunteers, and state and federal agency employees have contributed over 2600 animal sounds that are now housed at the biggest library of its kind in the west, called the Western Soundscape Archive. The project was founded by recording engineer Jeff Rice and digital librarian Kenning Arlitsch in order to document the sounds of animals living in the west and to make people aware so they will want to protect the environments where these animals live.

The digital sound archive is kept at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. Anna Neatrour was a project manager for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, awarded to Rice and Arlitsch, to develop the archive.

"The Western Soundscape Archive is a site that collects animal sounds centered on eleven states in the American West," says Neatrour. "And it provides a really good overview of all the species that live in our states as well as ambient sounds for National Parks. Quite a variety of sounds that people can listen to from their computers."

While the project no longer has funds to collect and annotate new sounds, Neatrour says archiving animal sounds is important because when people think about environmental issues and declining landscapes, they usually think about the visual aspects.

"The sounds associated with these natural landscapes change as well. So preserving that now for the future is very useful," she adds.

But recording the sounds is not always easy. Many animals are active early in the morning and can be in hard to reach locations. Different microphones are needed for different jobs. By using a parabolic microphone it's possible to pick up weak sounds from a few meters away, while a small remote microphone can be dropped into burrows in the ground, or holes in trees. Some sound enthusiasts go even further.

"If you search the archive for 'ant interview,' you can hear a story of a scientist describe how he recorded the vibrations that ants make by holding them between his teeth," says Neatrour. "It shows how devoted people are for capturing these sounds.

[Interview with Dr. Hayward Spangler]

The recordings include over 500 bird species, 300 mammals, dozens of snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs, as well as multiple insects. Many of the recordings are paired with predicted species distribution maps and pictures of the animals, which can be found by common or scientific name.

"We have some sounds from animals that you think would not make sounds, like earth worms for example," explains Neatrour. "And in that case the sound for that sound clip, it's more like the dirt falling as the earthworm moves through the ground."

[Earthworm sounds]

The individual animal sounds are important, but so are collections of sounds from particular landscapes. These collections, or soundscapes, include sounds of animals, geophysical features such as wind and streams, and human-produced sounds collected over the course of a day from different locations in the natural world.

[Ironwood Forest National Monument at dawn]

Soundscapes are frequently represented visually as spectrograms. The images of daily acoustic patterns can be used to better understand the area's biodiversity and health. Donated by the National Park Service, there are over 10,000 spectral images from 24 National Parks in the Western Soundscape Archive.

[Spectrograms from Zion National Park]

"You can actually look at these sound wave graphs and pinpoint things like airplane flights going overhead and disrupting the landscape versus variations in the ambient noise you might get in the different season," says Neatrour. "So that is something that can appeal more if people are doing research in that area."

Scientists are realizing that the auditory environment is as important as the visual landscape in understanding the health of an ecosystem. And the National Park Service is actively searching for ways to better protect the natural environment from the impact of human sounds, since studies suggest the acoustical environment is important for animals to find mates, protect their young, and to communicate about territories.

So the next time you are out in nature, remember to listen as well as look.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Thu, 05 Dec 2013 14:31:01 -0700
Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/102-global-warming-or-global-weirding http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/102-global-warming-or-global-weirding Weathering Change: Global Warming or Global Weirding?

(Audio) Over the next century, local microclimates within Utah will change in unexpected ways. Groups in Moab have different ways of dealing with this unknown.

In the final part of our series, Weathering Change,we look at how groups in Moab are responding to predictions that extreme weather conditions will arise in the coming years.


In January, Moab’s temperatures never rose above freezing for the entire month. With pipes freezing all over town, many old timers had never seen anything like it.

“As far as I can remember, it’s the coldest spell we’ve had in a long, long time,” says Ron Pierce, Moab’s weather historian.

Jayne Belnap, a scientist at the Moab research station of the Southwest Biological Science Center, says she is not surprised that there is local “colding” in the midst of global warming. “It was freezing cold this year. What do you mean, global warming? And so, there’s education about that. But I think part of the problem with desert environments is we live in extremes. I talk about it as global weirding.”

That is the weird thing about climate change. As the planet is expected to heat up over the next century by 4-7 degrees Farenheit, it is also expected that local microclimates will change in unexpected ways.

Fluctuations in weather will require communities like Moab to adapt to their own specific challenges. “If our temperatures are going to continue this direction, we need to come up with new standards that cover a colder temperature climate,” says Jeff Foster, Moab’s public works director.

To help Utah communities look towards the future, the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University, chronicled 50 years of climate change in the state. The study concludes that two main phenomena have been affecting Utah’s climate. A warming trend is causing more precipitation to fall as rain, and less as snow. And an abnormal high-pressure system has developed over the west that is partly responsible for extreme weather, like intense rainstorms.

These types of extreme weather events can have consequences. Two seasons ago, Moab’s uranium pile cleanup was threatened by flooding. Some fear this was just a taste of what’s to come.

“The point is, freaky weather happens. So the question you have to ask is, ‘What’s the frequency, and what’s the magnitude?’” says John Weisheit, conservation director for the advocacy group Living Rivers. “We are going to get major floods, and it’s going to affect Moab in particular. Because if that pile is not moved in time it’s going to liquefy, get lifted up, and sent into Lake Powell.”

While activists conclude that what we know already is a call to action, climate scientists seem to largely agree that much more study needs to be done. To that end, the Moab research station conducts climate manipulation studies at several locations around Moab.

Research ecologist Sasha Reed is researching how the plants and animals of the Colorado Plateau will respond to climate change. On various small plots, she uses infrared warming lamps to mimic higher temperatures, and sheets of glass to block precipitation, simulating less rainfall. Her group records changes to soil and ecological systems over the long-term, in the hopes of predicting effects of climate change.

Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to sustain and restore ecosystems, and provide a scientific basis for future land management decisions. “There isn’t this consistency in change in climate, and that makes thinking about land management and making decisions that much harder. It makes the experiments we do harder too, because we have to have that inconsistency in the experiment,” says Reed.

What really matters to most people is how climate change will affect them, says Mike Duniway, soil ecologist on the Moab team. He says it’s still difficult to address a hypothetical scenario such as determining when climate models will help someone decide whether to plant grapes in a particular Utah valley. “There’s a big challenge to talk about downscaling the global climate change models. And so trying to downscale those to figure out what’s going to be happening on your vineyard is a huge challenge. There’s all kinds of uncertainty with the models.”

With so many unknowns, major public planning for climate change, on a regional or local level, still seems far off. But local residents know the dust storms are getting worse and weather is getting crazy.

Weisheit thinks it’s time to get serious. “For some reason we think we’re immune to that because we have technology, we have smart people and we have lots of money and we can fix our way out of this. You know, this could all be taken away from us, like Fukushima was taken away from Japan.”

“We're not talking about Armageddon or the Apocalypse,” counters Belnap. “It's not like suddenly areas like around Moab are going to turn into the Sahara Desert, without a plant in site.”

Still, some groups have taken matters into their own hands and are already developing possible solutions. The Natural Resources Defense Council says immediate action to reduce fossil fuel and increase renewable energy use can help curb global warming. They cite over 250 "greenhouse gas abatement technologies" that may mitigate change, at little or no net cost.

In Moab, environmental groups have established a “climate action plan,” which includes the Canyonlands Watershed Council, where there is an ongoing dialogue among local government and green groups about how to make Moab more resistant to climate change.

If the bad weather and droughts continue, there’s no doubt that others will start trying to find solutions as well.


Use the audio player on this page to listen to the audio story

jonkovash@gmail.com (Jon Kovash) Environment Mon, 18 Mar 2013 00:00:00 -0600