My Arch Nemesis

Irony: “Jet noise – the sound of freedom” is the slogan of a somewhat common bumper sticker in Las Vegas, NV where the U.S. Air Force maintains a significant presence. I realize that I risk stirring a political hornet’s nest by stating the following opinion, but jet noise is not the sound of freedom – jet noise is the sound of noise! The next time you visit wild country, pay attention to how many jets you hear during the time that you’re out. It’s very likely that the hiking area that you once considered quiet is frequently interrupted with noise from aviation traffic. You’ll likely hear an interruption on an average of every 20 minutes. The amount of aviation traffic was a surprise to me once I began noticing the noise of our world. Since that time many years ago, there has not been one day where I did not hear some type of human made noise, regardless of where I stood.

Concerning my efforts to record the soundscape of Ash Meadows NWR, jet noise is my arch nemesis. Unfortunately, the refuge lies under the flightpath of all inbound and outbound flights from McCarran International (Las Vegas) to a significant portion of the U.S. northwest, including San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Reno, Portland, Seattle, Anchorage, etc. In addition, overflights from Phoenix, AZ and some other cities in the southwest utilize the same airspace while in route to those northern destinations. It all adds up to a significant volume of aviation traffic flying over the refuge. During the weekdays, a flight crosses the airspace about every 5 to 10 minutes from the hours of 5 A.M until midnight, and frequently there are multiple planes in the airspace at the same time. The stream of interruptions from Monday to Friday makes my efforts to obtain a noise-free, “clean” recording all but impossible. It seems that my best recording opportunities are confined primarily to the early hours of Saturday and Sunday. Still there are interruptions, one every 30 minutes or so, but that leaves me with enough time to make a good recording. However, don’t get me started about hearing Harley-Davidson motorcycles on the highway located 5 miles to the west of the refuge! If it’s not one thing, it’s another. This year (2014), I made about 60 hours of soundscape recordings at the refuge. Of those 60 hours, perhaps five or six hours are clean, noise-free tracks.

Click on the picture for a larger view.

Click on the picture for a larger view.

Because Ash Meadows lies just 70 miles to the northwest of Las Vegas, the jet noise blanketing the refuge everyday is a condition that will not change, at least in the foreseeable future. Regional geography, military flight restrictions, prevailing wind direction and runway orientation, are factors that determine flight routes. The routes in and out of Las Vegas are set and permanent. Additionally, the volume of aviation traffic in the future is only likely to increase, because our economy depends on mobility. I understand and must accept those conditions, but I still hope for a quieter jet engine in the future. The picture below is an aerial view of Ash Meadows taken at 32,000 feet. My apologies for the picture’s poor quality. See, it was taken by my cell phone, from my seat in a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 which was transporting me on a Sunday afternoon flight to San Jose, CA for a week of work. The week prior, I was probable cursing that very flight as I looked to the sky, removed my headphones and turned off my recorder.

Overflight of Ash Meadows NWR. The blue water feature in the center is Crystal Reservoir.

Overflight of Ash Meadows NWR. The blue water feature in the center is Crystal Reservoir.

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5 thoughts on “My Arch Nemesis

  1. Fred, I’m totally with you. I live on the east side of Tucson, and have to deal with not only commercial air traffic, but also military jets and helicopters training right over my house. I’m also a sound recordist, and have heard the soundscapes of the incredibly diverse US-Mexico borderlands get muffled under the constant noise of DHS drones patrolling the border.
    I wrote a blog post about aircraft noise over wilderness areas awhile back (http://www.wildmountainechoes.com/2014/09/sounds-wilderness/).
    I travel frequently across Nevada to visit family in Carson City. So far, I’ve only found two spots that were pretty quiet – Kingston Canyon south of Austin, and near Beaver Dam State Park near Caliente. I’ve blogged about a number of the trips.
    I’ve also put together a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/wildmountainechoes) for information about nature sound recording. I’ve shared your post there.

  2. Let’s see…Military – check, Commercial air travelers – check, Harley riders – check. Who else you gonna upset today? Just kidding… Another great read FB!

  3. Hi, Fred – Nice post…..Silence is so damned difficult to find in this world and yet so important. In my book In the Memory of the Map, I have a chapter that offers up a mediation on silence. Anyway, Happy New Year – Chris ________________________________

    • Chris, thank you for the nice comment. Eight or nine years ago I read a newspaper article about Gordon Hempton and his efforts to protect One Square Inch of Silence within Olympic National Park. Since then, I have sought quiet places, but not one day has passed that I did not hear at least one interruption by some type of man made noise. I feel fortunate to know of a couple of relatively quiet locations close to home, and I cherish them. Happy New Year to you as well.

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