Silence, the ultimate quest

No more than fifty or so. According to the American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, this is the number of places in the world that are totally free of all human noise. This man travels tirelessly around the globe to locate and preserve these natural sanctuaries, where the only audible sounds are those of the elements and wildlife. 

Gordon Hempton first made a name for himself in the 1980s-90s as one of the world’s finest “field recording artists”. His raw, unedited sound recordings have provided the content for several albums. In 1992, he made a documentary on sound portraits, or soundscapes, called Vanishing Dawn Chorus, for which he received an Emmy Award. He embarked on his quest after a personal experience recounted by the magazine The Sun. At the end of a day of driving, the young man pulled to the side of a road in Iowa and laid down in a field to sleep. “I continued to lie there and listen as the thunder got louder, and I let the storm roll right over me. I let myself get soaked. I simply took in the experience […] When it was all over, I was left with one question: How could I be twenty-seven years old and never have fully listened to a thunderstorm before?


Silence, a philosophy

For Hempton, noise and silence are not about decibels – they embody philosophical concepts. He considers noise to be “simple information, relatively loud, generally unbroken and of little interest. Silence is the absence of noise – or in any case, it’s a place where noise doesn’t prevent us from perceiving meaningful information.”

To Hempton’s mind, silence is the prerogative of nature, and encompasses all the sounds emanating from nature (rain, wind, sounds of wildlife, rustling leaves, and so on), while noise is only produced by human activities.


Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything.

Silence, an endangered species

Silence is a part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people,” he laments, arguing that the disappearance of silent areas has far surpassed the disappearance of species. Compelled to act, he launched his “One Square Inch of Silence”, a research project located in the Olympic National Park forest, one of the best-preserved natural areas in the United States. “If nothing is done to preserve and protect this quiet place from human noise intrusions, natural quiet may be non-existent in our world in the next 10 years,” he warns. In 2016, his foundation became Quiet Parks International (QPI), with the ambition of protecting as many large areas as possible from noise pollution by creating a label. The first “quiet zone” was certified “Wilderness Quiet Park” last April. This silent haven spanning 107,800 hectares – the equivalent of the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado – is located in Ecuador, on the land of the Cofán, an indigenous people native to the Amazon. Quiet Parks International has already put together a list of over 260 potential sites that should be certified and preserved from all noise pollution. The association also provides support and advice on research, education and how to preserve silence for future generations.

What about ATR?

Some airlines have agreed to deviate their flight paths in order to preserve these “pristine acoustic zones” so dear to Hempton. Here at ATR, producing quieter aircraft (both in the cabin and on the outside) has been a concern for many years already. Because we are aware of the environmental impact of noise on wildlife and populations on the ground, we are determined to produce the quietest aircraft possible. Proof that we are on the right track: the external noise level of an ATR 72-600 is 14.1 dB lower than a regional jet and remains 15.8 decibels below chapter 4, the maximum level set by the ICAO to address aircraft noise. Significant progress has been made by switching from four- to six-bladed propellers, by synchronising the rotation speeds of the two propellers to limit the number of flaps, and by placing elements on the fuselage structure to improve absorption of turbine vibrations.

Photo credit image header: ©Shawn Parkin