7 Ways that Noise and Hearing Have Changed Since the Lockdowns, For Better or For Worse

7 Ways that Noise and Hearing Have Changed Since the Lockdowns, For Better or For Worse

Noise, the increase of or lack thereof, can make an enormous difference in the ambience of a space. Since COVID-19–related lockdowns became widespread last year, our noise environments have been uniquely altered, for better and for worse.

What’s more, our expectations of what a certain space should sound like have also been upended. Before the pandemic, you might expect your living room to be a peaceful, relaxing place; its noise environment populated by smooth jazz and the soft creak of your Eames chair. Now living room noise consists of Zoom feedback loops and the buzz from your neighbour’s TV. Our expectations of external spaces have also changed. Normally bustling with life and energy, locked-down city streets are quiet to dystopian levels.

But it hasn’t been all bad. For instance, our underwater friends have enjoyed a break from the mayhem of marine machinery.

Here’s a roundup of seven ways that noise and hearing have changed since the March 2020 worldwide lockdowns.

For Worse

Residential noise annoyance

Noise knows no bounds so it’s no surprise that the influx of working from home has created some not-so neighbourly noise situations. Approximately 4.7 million Canadians worked from home for the first time in 2020, and more than a few us learned that our neighbour enjoys his daytime soaps cranked to 11. It’s been the case worldwide, with residential noise complaints increasing in New York, South Korea, and the UK.

Construction noise complaints

The uncertainty and risks posed by COVID-19 were daunting for workers in a variety of sectors—including those in the construction industry. Early on in the pandemic, construction work was declared an essential service and it was back to business as usual—with a few additional protocols.

While construction workers returned to the job site, home-office workers were still wearing stretchy pants and taking Zoom calls from their dining room tables. So, it’s no surprise to learn that construction noise complaints more than doubled in Vancouver from pre-pandemic levels.

It is unlikely that the noise generated by construction activities was significantly different from pre-pandemic levels, but it is possible that more people were exposed to the noise as they were scattered around more locations, and in spaces, like their homes, where they were used to lower ambient noise levels typical of evenings and weekends.

Worsening symptoms for people with auditory system problems and disorders 

Tinnitus is a symptom of problems in the auditory system and is often characterized by regular ringing or whooshing in the ears. According to a study published by Frontiers in Public Health, tinnitus was exacerbated for 58% of people who tested positive for COVID-19.

With so many lockdowns and restrictions on movement, others have reported difficulties in accessing quiet places to retreat. For people with hearing disorders, such as hyperacusis, where people have a higher sensitivity to noise, this can be particularly challenging.

For Better

NASA’s Perseverance and Martian Winds

NASA’s Perseverance rover, literally through its name and figuratively through NASA’s efforts, introduced us to the soundscape of planet Mars. Less than a week after landing, the Perseverance rover collected audio of wind on Mars, which was made available on NASA’s website.

While not a shift in noise trends, this event is noteworthy as it’s certainly a milestone for humankind.

Seismic Noise

Seismic noise, or ground vibrations, result from both natural events (e.g., earthquakes and ocean waves) and human activities (e.g., construction, transportation, oil exploration, and other industrial activities).

When much of the world shut down in 2020, scientists were given a unique opportunity to measure the lowest seismic levels on record. This is exciting, because it allowed quieter signals to be picked up, and provided information on the vibrations caused by human activities.

Ocean Noise Pollution, less these days

Noise pollution due to human activity exists not only above ground, but also under water. Shipping is one of the largest contributors, so it is no surprise that with so many restrictions on movement, underwater noise levels have decreased in some areas. For sea creatures, the benefits have been measurable: For example, near Alaska, humpback whales were observed taking naps in what would typically be busy channels for ships.

Reduction in Noise Pollution

When the pandemic lockdown started in Dublin, Ireland, its twelve continuous noise monitoring stations were ready to measure the impact, and Dubliners experienced a quieter city, as a reduction was noted at each measurement location. Madrid’s 31 monitoring terminals were also recording when the city was shut down: A reduction of 11 dBA at night was measured in normally “active” area of Plaza del Carmen, although reductions of 4 – 5 dBA were more typical across the city. Reductions in noise levels were also observed near Slovenia’s largest port in Koper, where shipping activities decreased substantially, and with the reduction in movement, researchers were better able to identify the noise impact of moored ships.

The Jury is Still Out…

Fake crowd noise at sports games

In an effort to recreate spectators cheers and groans for live events, multiple sports leagues, including the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL, have added artificial noise to their games. This has been met with very mixed reviews. Nonetheless, despite the difference in reception, all live sports enthusiasts can agree that nothing will ever truly replicate the thrill of seeing a game-winning touchdown, basket or goal in real life.

There you have it! Undoubtedly, pandemic-related lockdowns have brought about positive and negative changes to noise environments all over the world. Being mindful of these shifts can remind us of habits we need to retain or leave behind as the world returns to full throttle. After all, we all have a role to play in engineering a better sounding world.

To stay up to date with interesting noise-related current events, follow us on Twitter at @bklconsultants. If you are having issues with noise, acoustics, or vibration, contact us today! Call us at (604) 988-2508.

Written by Katrina Scherebnyj and Shirin Escarcha

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