Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Q&A: LEAP Student Fellow Robin Happel

Robin Happel

Robin Happel is a LEAP Student Fellow, an M.E.M student at Yale School for the Environment, and law student at Pace University. Previously, she worked with Earth Law Center supporting rights of nature language, and additionally served as a legal intern for the IUCN World Conservation Congress and as a member of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. She is a signatory to the Youth for Nature Manifesto as part of the U.N. Environment Programme’s Major Group of Children & Youth, and is certified in biodiversity law through UNEP and as a Protected Species Observer under the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Before starting law school, she worked in a paleontology lab and as a research assistant for the Bronx Zoo. Along with her mother, Ruth Happel, she is the author of a recent article on soundscape ecology. LEAP Editorial Associate Jack McCordick B.A. ’22 spoke with Happel about her article. 

What is a soundscape, and why are soundscapes worthy of study? 

So, a soundscape is basically a combination of all the different sounds in an ecosystem. Unfortunately, we know that in most places on Earth, there is a huge level of anthropogenic noise pollution. Even in really remote regions you still have air traffic noise. There was an interesting study recently on noise pollution from planes affecting Southern Resident killer whales, which are an extremely endangered population. It’s interesting because in thinking more about soundscapes I really had to break out of the way that I see the world, because I realized that I’m not as conscious about sounds as the animals I’m interested in protecting. Whales, for example, can communicate across hundreds of miles and have these really deeply layered relationships with sound that are difficult for humans to even comprehend. Another example would be elephants: a recent study showed that elephants can communicate at frequencies lower than humans can hear, and there are these advanced communications networks between elephants that we didn’t really know about for a long time. 

I find it useful to think about soundscapes in terms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Edward Sapir was actually a professor at Yale in the early 20th century, and he wanted to study Indigenous languages in the Americas, which was pretty revolutionary for the time. He came from the perspective that culture, and specifically language, shapes how you think, rather than the dominant view at the time, which was that there are superior and inferior cultures. So the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes out of that context, and it basically argues that the language we speak really shapes how we view the world in ways that are hard to even be consciously aware of, and I think that’s especially true when you look at non-human species. As humans, we’re so visual. We experience the world in primarily a visual way, and we don’t generally think about noise. If you have really annoying construction noise outside your building, you might be conscious of it for a few days, but we don’t notice noise in the way that many animals that primarily rely on sound would. 

How did you personally come to study soundscapes? 

A lot of my other writing is law-related and a bit more technical, so this is the only piece I’ve written about soundscapes. My mother, who’s my co-author (which is pretty cute), traveled all around the world for a long time recording nature sounds. Sometimes if we were in a really hippie gift shop or something and they’d have nature sounds playing, she’d say, “Oh, that’s my sound!” She was an early pioneer of the acoustic niche hypothesis, which is the idea that just as animals have certain foods they eat or certain places they live in an ecosystem, they also have an acoustic range. We’re seeing this now with noise pollution so that in the ocean, for example, it’s harder for whales to communicate. But since there wasn’t the idea of an acoustic niche for a long time, people underestimated the impacts of noise pollution. My mom got approached to do this article, and she roped me into it because at that time I’d just taken a class on seismic surveying and whales, and she wanted me to give the environmental law context for the issue. 

What are the recent technological inventions that have made it possible for researchers to effectively monitor soundscapes? 

Technology has definitely been a huge piece of this. When my mom was in the field, she would have these huge, bulky microphones and would have to put this fuzzy, weird-looking wind-screen over them. I used to help her record a bit when I was younger, and even in my lifetime the technology has become so much more advanced and it’s also become a lot more accessible. Especially with some of the discussions now around inclusivity in conservation biology and including more researchers from the Global South, cost and durability of technology are really important for the field. There’s a really cool start-up called Rainforest Connection, which uses recycled cell phones to create sensors to monitor the rainforest. They have this complex algorithm that detects logging noise, and they’re able to get that information to Indigenous people on the ground, so they’re better able to keep loggers out of their territory. That’s a really pioneering use of soundscapes. 

There’s been a lot of interest, especially in the past few years, in using sound for conservation work and monitoring, because it’s a lot cheaper than going out and having rangers. If you can just have these microphones and sensors set up in the rainforest, it’s much more cost-effective. There’s also a site called, which is a hub for conservation tech resources, and they had a workshop a while ago on using acoustic monitoring too. It’s interesting how far the technology has come, even recently. There are a lot more off-the-shelf tools now that use AI to analyze sound to pick up really subtle patterns or variations that a human couldn’t hear. If you’re trying to monitor logging noise in a rainforest, for example, there are so many birds, so many frogs, there’s so much sound per acre in an ecosystem. But if you know what specific sound signature you’re looking for, you can find it. 

It is certainly interesting how this has evolved from being in the field for months and being rained on and everything, to now being behind a desk. It’s become more of a data science field in some ways.

In the paper, you argue that “acoustic monitoring can serve as an aural canary, with soundscape changes serving as a bellwether for deeper environmental problems, warning of current or developing issues with endangered habitats and species.” What kinds of deeper environmental problems do soundscapes help us identify? 

One example of this is seismic surveying, or the use of seismic waves to investigate subterranean locations. I took a class in college to become a Protected Species Observer (PSO) under the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a regulatory agency most people don’t even know exists. I took the class because I really love whales, and I wanted to learn more about whale biology. I actually went out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts and observed whales because as part of the requirements to become a PSO, you have to be able to ID whales in the wild. The first half of that course, which was about what seismic surveying is, was kind of horrifying, honestly. This was when there was a big push to expand offshore drilling a few years ago, and unfortunately that push is still continuing now. A lot of the ways that exploration occurs for offshore reserves is by firing air guns into the sea floor. There was a study in Nature that showed that in areas where seismic surveying occurs, there are potentially plummeting levels of plankton. Obviously, plankton are the basis of the marine food web, so any impact there is very concerning. The fact that it’s so poorly understood is emblematic of the way a lot of noise pollution occurs. We just don’t bother to study the impacts. There are all these strange knock-on effects of noise pollution that we’re only beginning to be aware of. 

Additionally, I’m originally from East Tennessee, and I’m writing a paper this semester on mountaintop removal. As far as I know a lot of the research on the environmental effects of mountaintop removal focuses on water pollution because that’s a very obvious environmental harm. But I don’t think there’s been as much research on noise pollution, although that’s a potentially significant impact because you’re using so many explosives. Even with processes that have very clear-cut environmental harms, we often still don’t really think about noise pollution. 

In addition to monitoring the obviously negative impacts of noise, using sound monitoring can be really impactful in other ways. I haven’t come up with a formalized study method for this yet, because it’s difficult to get baseline data, but I was theorizing over quarantine that it might be more effective to use noise to monitor insects. There was a scary article a couple years ago in The New York Times on “the insect apocalypse.” It’s hard to get a sense for insect extinction because no one really knows the baseline level of insects because people didn’t bother to count how many gnats there were 50 years ago, for example. It wasn’t something you could get a grant and funding to go do. We had a hypothesis during quarantine that if you could find historical sound recordings of a summer night in some location, you could go back to that location, record data now, and compare the two. It’s difficult because it’s hard to manage the controls in a study like that, but theoretically you could measure insect populations through sound monitoring instead of just trying to catch insects in a net, which is the study model we’re seeing now. There are a lot of people grappling with the prospect of there being potentially mass extinction events going on in some insect species, but it’s so difficult to measure them. The advantage of using sound — like this study of crickets did — is that it’s lower cost and you can get very minute variations across relatively large datasets. 

You argue that soundscape ecology is becoming increasingly relevant in energy and climate policy and law. What are some examples of its growing use? In what ways might soundscape ecology be deployed in the future? 

I was having a discussion in one of my law classes recently that a lot of America’s environmental laws are from 50 years ago, and that’s problematic in a number of ways, but one way is that we didn’t know as much about pollution then as we do now. The Clean Water Act, for example, will sometimes mention heat, which was very cutting edge for its time because we didn’t think of heat as something that could be a pollutant for a long time, but there is a gap around noise pollution in a lot of core environmental statutes. The Noise Control Act of 1972 is one of relatively few laws that set out to tackle noise pollution specifically, and it still considered this problem from a primarily anthropocentric point of view. Although as far as I know, that law is still on the books today, it’s been defunded since basically the Reagan administration. There are ways you can argue some of this language should be enforced or applied more broadly— and that’s a core law student skill — but it’s difficult because there is a lack of awareness even among people who are really passionate about these issues. Two notable examples of successful advocacy campaigns are the Sierra Club’s work to stop seismic surveying in the Arctic Refuge, because of concerns about possible effects on polar bear dens, and the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s advocacy against seismic surveying in the coastal South. Both of these were really pioneering and bold campaigns, and hopefully helped to raise awareness of this issue.

What has being a part of the LEAP community meant to you during your time at Yale? 

I really enjoy LEAP. Especially as a joint student with the School of the Environment, it’s nice to have a space with students from all across Yale. I really enjoy a lot of LEAP’s events as well, and just having that network of support. I feel like environmental law itself is a very niche field, so animal law and other specialties within that can feel isolating at times. It’s so nice to have a community of people who have these shared values and are passionate about these issues, because it can be an uphill battle at times.