Friday, October 10, 2008

Outdoor tortures, part II: deafening, snoring tentmates

Have you ever tried to sleep in a tent with someone who snores just like a foghorn? Have you ever wondered how one unconscious human could make such a racket? A while back, I wrote a magazine piece in which I tried to quantify -- and compare -- the loudness of snoring backpackers to the hideous noises made by cicadas and loud, shrieking barred owls, using scientific methods. The results appear below ...

Showdown: Who’s the Loudest? Backpacker versus cicada versus barred owl.

Latin name: Magicicada Septendecim
Sound and fury: Can drown out the roar of a revving power mower
There's a very special place in hell for the male periodical cicada. Its screeching "song" may be irresistible to potential mates, but it's pure torture for humans. This nectar-sucking bug owes its distinction as one of the noisiest insects to its tymbals, ribbed vibrating membranes that stretch along its abdominal cavities. These hollow chambers act like built-in megaphones, amplifying a metallic screech that can be heard 440 yards away. Populations lie dormant for more than a dozen years before bursting into the wild with a collective scream that registers in excess of 100 decibels, roughly the volume of a Green Day concert. Now imagine if you stumbled into camp only to find what scientists discovered in 1969: 1.5 million singing cicadas in a single acre. No wonder entomologists wear earplugs while studying the bug.

Latin name: Strix Varia
Sound and fury: can do a dead-on impression of a shrieking monkey
It sounds like the beginning of a bad horror movie in the tree above your campsite. A crazy woman cackles; a dog barks frantically; and an owl belts out a surprisingly loud and penetrating "who cooks for you." But the head-rattling cries are not sound effects; they're part of the barred owl's headache-inducing vocal repertoire used to mark territory, signal aggression, and attract mates. Amazingly, the owl makes all this racket without any vocal cords. Its voice box produces low-frequency sound waves that carry over great distances in forested terrain, fooling you into thinking the bird can cackle in your ear. The volume intensifies when the barred owl rallies other birds to song. Frightened by its laugh, wild turkeys will break into a chorus of demented gobbling. Reach for the Excedrin. It's going to be a long night.

Latin name: Unconscious Obnoxicus
Sound and fury: Can damage his own hearing.
You wiggle down into your bag and are about to say "good night" when a series of loud snorts halts your reverie. You brace yourself for the inevitable: a long, rising, relationship-threatening snore. For the rest of the night, his labored breaths cause his palate, throat, and uvula to vibrate, producing a wet rattling noise that makes you bury your head under your makeshift pillow. Unfortunately, the wine you two enjoyed at dinner relaxed the soft tissue in the back of his throat. The result: a deeper, more amplified snore. Add his allergies, which demand that he breathe more forcefully, and suddenly the tent is equipped with surround sound. You try nudging him, then kicking him. It's no use; he snores in every position. Spongy earplugs only help so much. After all, the world's loudest snores measure 93 decibels, rivaling the rumble of a bulldozer.

Sure, the cicada is deafening, but it only raises the roof every 15 years or so. The snoring tentmate? You can always push for a trip to the doctor. But a nocturnal noisemaker that sounds like a mockingbird on acid? We bow before the resounding victor.

(this was originally published in Backpacker.)

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