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Sounds of environmental change

Updated Monday, 17 December 2018
What does environmental change sound like? Dr George Revill argues that sound can be a powerful way of conveying how places are transformed by climate change.

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Foghorn at Kinnaird Head lighthouse For many, the varied landscapes found at the coast are a defining feature of the British Isles. Yet there is increasing concern about the future of coastal landscapes and environments, as scientists, planners and public come to terms with the implications of future environmental change driven by changing climate. Sea levels around the UK are currently rising at around 3mm per year, and a projected increase in the number and intensity of storms and other extreme weather events attributed to human-induced climate change is likely to intensify the processes of coastal change. Beaches and soft cliff faces are easily eroded by storm waves and surging tides; farmland and precious habitats, homes and property are lost to the sea.

Sound is one of the most powerful ways in which places are experienced through the senses. Whereas eyes can be closed and vision can be focused in a particular direction, ears remain open to sounds generated from all around, and humans are more 'vulnerable' to sounds as a result. Particular sounds can evoke powerful memories of people and places too. In the past, geographers were mostly concerned with what places and environments looked like in maps and pictures. More recently, though, some geographers have turned their attention to senses such as smell, touch and sound, in order to gain a better understanding of different ways in which people experience place.

Sounds experienced on and by the sea can tell geographers a lot about how people experience and value coastal landscapes, particularly when these are under threat from rising sea levels. Asking people to choose sounds that remind them of a favourite beach or cove can help people express thoughts and feelings they might otherwise find difficult to put into words.

Sounding our shores

The National Trust is a charity in England and Wales dedicated to the protection of built and landscape heritage. The National Trust now has in its care over 775 miles of British coastline including iconic landscapes such as the white chalk cliffs of Sussex at Beachy Head, heathlands at Lizard Point, the southernmost part of England, the spectacular cliffs of Pembrokeshire in Wales and the coastal marshes of North Norfolk. In 2014 it launched the Sounding Our Shores project, which was designed to draw attention to the importance that is attached to the coast in Britain and to raise awareness of the changes and threats that valued coastal landscapes face in the future. As part of that project, the National Trust asked people to record and upload their favourite seaside sounds to a website. The website has a map of the UK coastline, and you can click on the map to hear the recordings sent in.


Listen to the following sounds which were generated as part of the Sounding Our Shores project. They evoke a range of seaside locations and experiences which may be familiar to many. Do any of these sounds remind you of a particular memory, a time and place beside the sea?

Tide coming in just west of Portmeirion

Children and dogs play on Bream Cove

Waves from the cliffs, Beagle's Point 


Sound of seagull flying over Harwich beach, Essex 

The composer and sound recordist R. Murray Schafer developed a way of categorising sounds and you may recognise some of the sounds presented here as what he called ‘Keynote Sounds’, which exist in the background and are not normally noticed because they are so familiar, like the wind and the hum of traffic. Others are ‘Sound Signals’, designed to attract attention and provide a warning’ like a coastal foghorn. However, because these sounds have been singled out, recorded and uploaded by members of the public, all these sounds are also what Schafer termed ‘Sound Marks’.

These are sounds which in some way have a special association with a particular place and might be highly valued by either or both local residents and visitors. As well as these kinds of sounds, musicians also create work to evoke the sea. The musician and music producer Martyn Ware composed a soundwork called The British Coastline from the sound recordings uploaded by the public to the Sounding Our Shores website.

In interviews, Martyn argues that soundwork emphasises the power of sound to evoke memories and to affect humans deeply and directly about places, landscapes and environments. Perhaps sound is really a neglected means of communication for those who want to communicate about environmental issues. What we can learn from these various examples of different kind of sounds, then, is that all sorts of sounds can powerfully convey the effects of environmental change on vulnerable landscapes like beaches.


Further reading and references

The audios in this article were recorded by audioBoom, as part of the British Library and National Trust’s Sounds of our Shores project

The Open University module DD103 studies soundscapes in week 23.



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