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Arctic Soundscape: An Audible Expedition to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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Take an acoustic journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and intently listen to music in its purest form. Every wild habitat on the planet — even ants and larvae — create their own sound signature.

“A soundscape is a voice of a living habitat,” says Dr. Bernie Krause, noted musician and soundscape ecologist.

Krause has recorded jaguars at night in the Amazon rain forest and mountain gorillas in Africa's Virunga Mountains. He recounts his personal experiences, focused on animals’ and nature’s sounds and rhythms, in a book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places.

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Yet his newest, recently released documentary Nature's Orchestra: Sounds of Our Changing Planet records acoustic habitats that are neither disturbed nor destroyed by human activities —the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Stretching 19.3 million acres across Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle and a mere 1,300 miles south of the North Pole, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is roughly the size of South Carolina. Native peoples, including the Inupiat and Gwich’in Indians, have called this vast, ecologically abundant region — devoid of roads, signage and industrial cacophony — home for thousands of years.

The Arctic refuge spans five different ecological regions: the lagoons, beaches and salt marshes of its coastal marine areas; coastal plain tundra; alpine tundra of the Brooks Range; forest tundra south of the mountains; and the boreal forest that contains tall spruce, birch and aspen trees.

The refuge is ideal for backcountry camping, hiking, and witnessing the spectacle of nature left untouched. First-time visitors are encouraged to join a guided tour — from day hikes to the Atigun Gorge to guided tours of polar bear viewing to birding and river adventures. But solo, partner or group travel are welcome. Turn to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for information on permits, directions and travel within the refuge, guides, and maintaining a low footprint in the pristine wilderness.

In the extreme north of the refuge, the City of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea is home to the Kaktovikmiut — and known as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.’ Kaktovik does not cater to tourists — there are no hotels or public campgrounds. Yet intrepid travelers often find ways to speak with Natives to arrange for seasonal locations to camp in appropriate locations.

Members of the Gwich’in Indian Tribe reside near the refuge in Arctic Village and Venetie to the south. Old Crow Village, home of the Vuntut Gwitchin, is due east of the refuge in Yukon.

The refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the Arctic. Every year, herds of roughly 200,000 porcupine caribou complete their 400-mile march from the Yukon to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Polar bears, gray wolves, muskoxen, tundra swans, snow geese, Arctic graylings and Dolly Vardens also call the refuge home. Bird species from its coastal plain migrate across the entire country — “meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape,” the White House said in a statement in January 2015.

Krause intimately understands how deeply animals rely on their aural habitat to survive. Extraneous noise drastically interferes with their communication and the delicate balance between predator and prey.

Despite the unfathomable beauty and intricate web of life that thrives in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the significance the landscape holds to Alaska Natives, Republicans are once again pushing to allow for oil exploration.

In 2015, President Barack Obama designated 12.3 million acres as wilderness in the refuge, making it off limits to oil and gas drilling in perpetuity, citing Native subsistence fishing traditions among other considerations. Wilderness designation is the highest level of protection available to public lands. Since Donald Trump's election, however, many Republican lawmakers are pressing once again to exploit the natural sanctuary. Democratic lawmakers in Congress continue to defend fiercely against potential drilling in the refuge. Most recently, they introduced a new bill in early April opposing drilling.

Drilling in the refuge could cause population-scale impacts for many species.

Beyond admiring admiring how soundscapes are vital to the animal kingdom, Krause, a trained musician, also examines how their “myriad voices and rhythms of the natural world formed a basis from which our own musical expression emerged.”

Nature’s sounds sustain wildlife and ecosystems, and offer humans a vital connection to the natural world, as well as to our deepest selves.

“For if we listen, our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the very sources of our lives,” says Frank Keim, poet and naturalist, in Nature’s Orchestra.