The Sounds of Yellowstone
Yellowstone brings to mind iconic images of landscapes filled with roaming bison, technicolor hot springs, and cascading waterfalls. But what sounds come to mind when thinking of Yellowstone? The park is a multi-sensory experience, but visitors often forget to tune in to the many auditory phenomena that occur. Or they take for granted the silence and solitude offered. Learn more about experiencing the park through your ears.
The occurrence of sounds in a particular area forms the soundscape. Soundscapes in Yellowstone vary with the seasons (birds chirping in the spring, bison bellowing in the summer, elk bugling during fall, and wolves’ howling in winter). Animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem need to hear or produce sounds to attract mates, detect predators, find prey, and/or defend territories. For them, sound is survival.
Just as the lands of Yellowstone are protected “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” so too are the natural soundscapes. To address the growing concerns of human activity on natural soundscapes, Yellowstone and Grand Teton initiated a soundscape monitoring program in 2003.  The National Park Service’s goal is to protect or restore natural soundscapes where possible and minimize human-caused sounds. In fact, there is even a Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division devoted to providing guidance and expertise on helping parks reduce impacts from noise and light pollution.
Sound of Silence
Winter is one of the quietest times of year in the park. Yellowstone receives an average of 150 inches (381 cm) of snowfall, but it is not uncommon for higher elevations to get twice that amount. Research by the University of Kentucky studied the acoustic properties of snow and found it absorbs up to 60% of sound. A blanket of snow quiets much of the background noise and sounds from small creatures like an American dipper are amplified.
Winter also brings about the phenomena of the ‘singing lake.’ Situated at 7,733 feet (2,357 m) above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake (above 7,000 feet / 2,134 m) in North America. It freezes over completely every winter with ice thicknesses varying from a few inches to more than two feet. From the shores of the frozen lake, if conditions are just right, the lake sounds like it’s singing. The exact source of the noise is uncertain but one theory is that as the ice freezes and expands, the moving water underneath the ice creates cracks that travel and create sounds.
Two of Yellowstone’s most exciting soundscapes of the year happen in August and September: the bison and elk mating seasons – otherwise known as the rut. In early to mid-August, two thousand pound bull bison strut across the landscape, bellowing their virility in deep-throated guttural roars as they compete with other bulls for the right to mate. Plumes of dust rise high into the air, as the mighty bulls rumble, wallow, and strut. Come mid-September, otherworldly bugles—the vocalizing of bull elk—cut through the frosty pre-dawn. Watching and listening to the eerie bugle of the bulls as they jockey for position and guard their harems is one of the true highlights of fall in Yellowstone.
Artist Paint Pots
The many geothermal features in the park emit a wide variety of noises but one sound that is sure to put a smile on your face is the splash, slurp, and gurgle of a mud pot. They form when surface water collects in a shallow, impermeable depression (usually due to a lining of clay) that has no direct connection to an underground water flow. Thermal water underneath causes steam to rise through the ground, heating the collected surface water. Sulfuric acid breaks down rock into clay and results is a gooey mix through which gases gurgle and bubble. Mudpots are sometimes called “paint pots” due to minerals tinting the color of the mud.
Next time you view a national park landscape, take a few minutes to enjoy the accompanying soundscape too!
Interested in ‘hearing’ (pun intended) more about Yellowstone? Check out these other resources:
- Our Steam, Stars and Winter Soundscapes tour departs nightly from Snow Lodge in the winter.
- The Voices of Yellowstone video provides insight into the value of natural sounds in wild places and how the park monitors those sounds.
- The NPS offers many ways to enjoy the sounds of Yellowstone via an online library of audio clips, a podcast about the sound of science, and audio postcards.
- The Acoustic Atlas’ Yellowstone Collection compiles recordings of the species and environments of America’s first national park. The collection also includes interviews and stories as part of an ongoing podcast series.
- PARKTRACKS virtually transports you to national parks across the country with sounds captured by the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.
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