Earth Institute Research Projects

Collaborative Research: Navigating the New Arctic (NNA): Soundscape ecology to assess environmental and anthropogenic controls on wildlife behavior

Lead PI: Natalie T. Boelman

Unit Affiliation: Biology and Paleo Environment, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

September 2018 - August 2023
North America ; Alaska
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: Across North America, Arctic and boreal regions have been warming at a rate two to three times higher than the global average. At the same time, human development continues to encroach and intensify, primarily due to demand for natural resources, such as oil and gas. The vast and remote nature of Arctic-boreal regions typify their landscapes, environment, wildlife, and people, but their size and isolation also make it difficult to study how their ecosystems are changing. To overcome these challenges, autonomous recording networks can be used to characterize "soundscapes" - a collection of sounds that emanate from landscapes. Unlike traditional observing methods that are expensive, labor-intensive, and logistically challenging, sound-recording networks provide a cost-effective means to both monitor and understand the response of wildlife to environmental and anthropogenic changes across vast areas. One particular challenge with this sound-measurement approach is extracting useful ecological information from the large volumes of soundscape data that are collected. This project will develop the techniques necessary to overcome this challenge.

The researchers' goal is to understand the influence of both environmental dynamics and increasing anthropogenic activity on the behavior and phenology of migratory caribou (Rangifer tarandus), waterfowl, and songbird communities in Arctic-boreal Alaska and northwestern Canada. Through co-production of knowledge with local land managers and indigenous communities, the research team will combine field observations, modeling, and analyses that include: (1) soundscape measurements, (2) camera-trap observations, (3) automated soundscape analyses, (4) analyses of camera-trap caribou observations, (5) high-resolution modeling of environmental variables, (6) statistical analyses including wildlife occupancy, diversity, and phenology modeling, and (7) a human-computation game to collect descriptions of our acoustic recordings that allows for the participation of local and Indigenous players of the game. The project will contribute understanding of how both avian communities and caribou populations are responding to spatiotemporal variations in environmental conditions and increasing development of the oil and gas industry in a region where such comprehensive, large-scale research has rarely been possible. Further, at the request of various Tribal organizations, our research will provide insight into how industrial noise influences traditional practices. In addition, our research will provide baseline data on all natural sounds, including data on bird and caribou activity, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge prior to oil and gas development. These datasets will be available to inform Indigenous practices and natural resource management, as well as facilitate future Environmental Assessments required by land managers and oil and gas developers.