Skip to content

Editor's Note: Threatscape

​In one of his first professional jobs as a sound engineer in Hollywood, Bernie Krause was assigned to record corn growing. In an effort to ​get rid of a superfluous crew member, the director had given Krause the most boring job imaginable. Krause, recounting the experience in his book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places, discovered that growing corn “makes a sound as it expands telescopically, like the staccato-like clicks and squeaks reminiscent of rubbing dry hands in quick, jerky movements across the surface of a well-inflated party balloon.”

The assignment set Krause on a path to record the natural world. He has heard ants sing, anemones grunt, Pacific tree frogs yell, and baby vultures scream. He has also studied how the sounds of animals, known as the biophony, are constantly layered with the sounds of the natural environment such as wind and running water, known as the geophony, and the sounds that humans make or introduce, called the anthrophony. 

Together, these noises create a soundscape. By listening carefully to the unique soundscapes of individual locations, Krause can determine the ecological health of an area that cannot be visually ascertained. “Every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information,” Krause told the audience in his TED Talk, “How Does Listening to Nature Teach Us About Changing Habitats?”

That soundscape information is often the first sign of a struggling ecosystem. For example, Krause was called to evaluate the soundscape of an Oregon forest in which logging companies had implemented a new strategy. Instead of clear cutting, the company was removing a small number of trees within a forest, leaving it visually unchanged. Krause found that, within a year, the birds had fled, changing a soundscape that had previously included a din of birdsong into an environment where only one lone woodpecker could be heard. The finding surprised the company and environmentalists, who had not anticipated this outcome.

Security professionals on college campuses employ similar skills in evaluating the threatscape—the spectrum of possible dangers that could coalesce into an incident. By understanding the entire environment—urban versus rural, concentrated versus dispersed—and by seeing beyond the obvious crime statistics and reported incidents to the underlying causes, potential threats can be mitigated. In this month’s cover story, a campus threat assessment team offers strategies for the dangerous time between a report of wrongdoing, such as stalking, and the conclusion of the investigation into the incident. By decoding the threatscape and then putting mitigation plans in place, the team helps protect both the potential victim and the entire campus community.