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UC Merced Student Documents the Yosemite Soundscape

August 1, 2008

Orion Agnew grew up in the Sierra Nevada - his home in Midpines is just minutes away from Yosemite National Park. So his choice to spend time there as an intern in UC Merced’s Yosemite Leadership Program was an easy one.

What he’s doing though, is a little out of the ordinary.

Agnew, a junior in environmental engineeringat UC Merced, is spending his time recording the soundscapes of Yosemite.

A soundscape is all the sounds of a given environment. In Yosemite, that may include birds chirping, breezes blowing through leaves, footsteps of grazing animals, the curious snufflings of bears - even human voices speaking in languages from around the world.

“The soundscapes program is just starting throughout the National Parks system,” Agnew said. “It came from the realization that the soundscape of the Valley is one of the protected resources.”

He said he’s been working to document the existing ambient sound levels to provide evidence that human influences like motorcycles and low-flying aircraft threaten the natural soundscape. He’s recording at locations like Hetch Hetchy and Happy Isles, as well as several back country areas.

“We’re trying to build this matrix of all these different acoustic spots,” Agnew said. “Through analyzing the different types of spots and the different readings we got from those spots, we can get a ground base for further comparison.”

He explained that population growth and density have changed our perceptions of ambient noise. Our ears and brains have to deal with a lot more noise than our ancestors’ did.

“We’re getting a lot more input,” he said. “A lot of people have started researching how that’s changing our thinking, our rest - it’s well established that our sleep has changed because of the noise in our environment. There’s a lot of research about how it’s changing our psychology.”

Agnew, with his long background in the Sierra, is sensitive to the challenges inherent in resource conservation.

“It’s always a fine line in national parks to balance how to keep these resources available for visitors’ enjoyment, versus applying regulation to keep the soundscape in its natural state,” he said.

The knowledge he’s gathering about sounds in Yosemite is sure to prove useful when those delicate decisions have to be made. And he’s gaining valuable research experience during a fun summer in the park at the same time.

To hear some of Agnew’s soundscape recordings as well as an interview with him, check out the UC Merced Podcast page.