Driven to Distraction by Howling Death Machines

There are valid concerns about renewable energy sources, particularly as they are being implemented today. Corporations and governments have been pursuing their lackluster energy transition with the same destructive recklessness as they pursue fossil fuels, threatening or destroying habitats around the world to put up turbines or solar farms, rather than using existing spaces like parking lots and rooftops, or actually taking the time to consider environmental impacts. Wind turbines also do kill birds and bats, albeit fewer than are killed by fossil fuels, and the wind industry seems to have no interest in voluntarily adopting different turbine designs to avoid that. Why would they? They’re capitalist organizations, just like all the rest.

None of this, however, negates the need for renewable and nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, and so in addition to considering those valid concerns, I’ve also learned about a great many concerns that have no validity whatsoever, and perhaps the pinnacle of those has been the so-called “Wind Turbine Syndrome“. In a nutshell, organizations in the employ of the fossil fuel industry spread the false notion that the mere presence of a wind turbine was destructive to the health of local communities. The primary lie was that the turbines generated “infrasound” that acted like some kind of sonic weapon to cause all sorts of health problems. This has been debunked many times over, but it turns out that by spreading this panic among targeted populations, they created a “nocebo effect”, which generated psychosomatic symptoms. People literally worried themselves sick over the sound of wind turbines.

I thought of this today, because as I was pondering topics for this post, I came across an interesting bit of research about an actual public health problem caused by sound. What’s more, if we were to eliminate the source of this problem, it would actually help the fight against global warming!

The bad news is that doing so means reigning in the military-industrial complex that has become one of the biggest businesses in the United States, which is no mean feat. The US armed forces, in addition to being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, are a noisy bunch, and have little regard for the people living around them. Normally when we’re talking about the harm done by the Pentagon, we’re talking about chemical pollution, and the devastating human, social, and political impacts of the United States’ constant warmongering. This may not be as big of a problem as those two, but noise pollution is also a big problem, and it’s not just an annoyance. You may have heard of the US Navy’s sonar messing with whales, and now it turns out that the US Navy’s “growler” jet is so loud that it’s actually harming the health of people as it flies over.

Bob Wilbur thought he’d found a retirement home that would be a place of peace. Nestled against Admiralty Bay on the western edge of Whidbey Island, the three-story house is surrounded by trees and shoreline. It offers the kind of quiet that only an island can provide. Except when the Growlers fly. 

As often as four days a week, Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft based at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly loops overhead as pilots practice touch-and-go landings. The noise is immense, around the level of a loud rock concert. “It interrupts your day,” Wilbur said. “You’re unable to have a pleasant evening at home. You can’t communicate. You constantly try to organize your day around being gone when the jets are flying.” 

New research from the University of Washington shows that the noise isn’t just disruptive — it presents a substantial risk to public health. Published May 9 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, an analysis of the Navy’s own acoustic monitoring data found that more than 74,000 people are exposed to noise levels associated with adverse health effects 

“Military aircraft noise is substantially more intense and disturbing than commercial jet noise,” said lead author Giordano Jacuzzi, a graduate student in the UW College of the Environment. “Noise exposure has many downstream effects beyond just annoyance and stress — high levels of sleep disturbance, hearing impairment, increased risk of cardiovascular disease — these have real impacts on human health and quality of life. We also found that several schools in the area are exposed to levels that have been shown to put children at risk of delayed learning.”

Maybe this sort of thing doesn’t capture the imagination of the world’s conspiracy theorists the way an undetectable “infrasound” does, but the main way sound can harm us is by being too loud. I think it’s often easy for us to dismiss annoyances. We learn to live with minor discomforts, because that’s just what’s required to get through life. As we age, we acquire new and often worse discomforts, and we learn to cope with those too, but this stuff wears on us. The health impacts of stress, and sleeplessness are well known, and there are some conditions to which humans cannot adapt. We can try, and we can live with them for a time, but they wear us down as surely as exposure to a chronic poison.

In total, an estimated 74,316 people were exposed to average noise levels that posed a risk of annoyance, 41,089 of whom were exposed to nighttime noise levels associated with adverse effects on sleep. Another 8,059 people — most of whom lived within fairly close proximity to aircraft landing strips – were exposed to noise levels that can pose a risk of hearing impairment over time. 

“Our bodies produce a lot of stress hormone response to noise in general, it doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is. But particularly if it’s this repeated acute noise, you might expect that stress hormone response to be exacerbated,” said co-author Edmund Seto, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences. “What was really interesting was that we’re reaching noise exposure levels that are actually harmful for hearing. Usually I only think of hearing in the context of working in factories or other really, really loud occupational settings. But here, we’re reaching those levels for the community.  

Taken as a whole, the potential harms can be quite serious, Seto said. “Imagine people trying to sleep, or children in school trying to understand their teachers and you’ve got these jets flying.” 

Every monitoring station on Whidbey Island measured noise events in excess of 100 decibels when jets were flying. In some instances, noise levels were “off the charts” — exceeding the limits of models used to predict the health effects of noise exposure around the world.  

“We found it striking that Growler noise exceeds the scientific community’s current understanding of the potential health outcomes,” said co-author Julian Olden, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “For this reason, our estimates of health impacts are conservative.” 

As I said before, this is very far down on the list of reasons why the US imperial armed forces need to be dismantled for the good of humanity (not JUST the US, to be clear – it’s just the worst offender). The endless war, the genocides the US keeps supporting, of which the ongoing massacre of the Palestinian people is just one, the rampant pollution of land, sea, and air; a little noise seems like nothing next to all of that. Which is why I decided to write this post. When the world is filled with vicious savagery, hatred, and destruction, it’s easy to overlook those problems that don’t cause human bodies to be torn apart or filled with cancer, but the suffering of those subjected to the maddening noise of constant military fly-overs also merits our concern.

We live in a vast and tangled web of interconnected systems, many of which are extremely harmful for the vast majority of humanity. Stafford Beer popularized the notion that the purpose of a system is what it does, and what the Pentagon does, is destroy lives in so many ways that we may never quantify all of them. It destabilizes our world in pretty much every way one could imagine, all to provide the illusion of stability that comes from the same group of people being in charge, decade after decade. Taking on the US military, even at the funding end rather than the killing end, is one of the most daunting tasks there is, but it has also always been a part of the fight for a stable climate. It remains a tall order, but as Ursula Le Guin once said:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.


  1. Katydid says

    Your post is making me laugh as I sit with my morning coffee before heading to work. There are some county trucks doing something in the neighborhood and there’s a constant shrill BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of backup warnings. The lawn people are also out with their deafening, unceasing shrieking blowers and commercial-sized howling lawnmowers, someone’s muffer-less motorcycle is roaring up the road, the next-door neighbor’s idling car radio is so loud that the THUMP THUMP THUMP is penetrating the wall and making a picture on the wall vibrate, and someone’s got a tree service felling trees with a jarring, unsynched BOOM BOOM BOOM. And oh, yeah, the commercial airplanes from the airport 20 miles away are taking off in a flightpath right over my head. That’ll go on unceasingly for about four hours.

    But sure, there’s no noise whatsoever except for the military…

  2. Katydid says

    At work now in a one-story office building in an office park. Still hear the roar-ROARRRRRR of the airplanes, the nonstop shrieking and howling of the commercial landscaping equipment, some bone-jarring non-stop DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH!!!! of a jackhammer splitting some perfectly-good cement pavement for no apparent reason, the nearby highway noise, a fractious meeting going on in the central walkway, and Loud Hal in the next cubicle braying about the local sportzballz team. And, just now, the howl of the commuter train on tracks a mile away. Despite there being railroad tracks warning that trains pass by, and a fence surrounding the tracks to warn that a train goes by, too many people have mistakenly been hit by the train, so when it passes certain points, it has to sound a VERY LOUD horn to warn people it’s there. That goes on once an hour or so, all day long.

  3. says

    Well, I don’t believe I ever implied the military was the only source of noise pollution.

    But this feels a bit like people opposing gun regulations by pointing to automobile deaths. Cars kill people, sure, but they serve a purpose other than killing.

    Maybe this sounds hypocritical to you, but I’m more sympathetic towards the sounds caused by people just pursuing their lives, than those made by the most bloated and aggressive military force in the world. Like – yeah, the hourly train horn is a problem, and maybe something should be done about it, but the train serves a peaceful and beneficial purpose, and the horn is there to protect people’s safety. The same is true of pretty much everything else you mentioned. There are loud machines, and maybe changes should be made about that, but part of the problem here is the “death” part of “death machines”.

    I think it’s clear that noise is not my primary problem with the Pentagon. It’s just one more to add to the pile and seemed easy to write about on a busy week.

  4. Katydid says

    Yes, I know, you hate the military and everyone who’s ever been in it, LOL. That’s very clear. But you were complaining about the noise.

    This morning just before 5 am, a neighbor’s car alarm went off…and continued. And continued. Finally another neighbor went to knock on the door of the house with the loud car, and when the owner finally showed up, there was a screaming argument because how dare the knocking neighbor wake up the car owning neighbor?

    Another neighbor’s got new siding, and there’s been hammering and loud music and cursing going on all day at top volume, and shortly ago, another neighbor is having a sportzballz party on his back deck, filled with a couple-dozen screaming fanatics and the announcer’s voice that you can hear on the next block.

    But sure, airplanes overhead are only annoying when they’re military ones? And no other noise is annoying or stressing or causes hearing loss? Okay, if you say so, LOL

  5. Dunc says

    I used to live in an area sometimes used for low-altitude military flight training, and I can assure you that you will never experience a noise like it unless you actually live inside the grounds of an airport, directly under the flight path, or happen to be very close to a lightning strike.

  6. says

    @Katydid – as we’ve discussed before, I do not hate “everyone in it”, any more than I hate every person who works in the fossil fuel industry. I think the US military-industrial complex very demonstrably does far more harm in the world than good, just like the fossil fuel industry whose interests it so often serves. I’m also aware that plenty of people have positive experiences, and have had their lives vastly improved through involvement in those institutions, and I have no particular problem with that.

    I also don’t think that means that I should moderate my criticism of those institutions. It DOES mean that in changing the world, we should be sure to account for the wellbeing of people like coal and oil workers, as well as people in the military an their families.

    Can you see the comparison here? When it comes to the abuses of the US empire, my anger is directed at those actually making the decisions, and so far as I can tell, none of THOSE people read my blog, or are even aware that it exists. When it comes to the fossil fuel industry, it’s the same, and I would say there’s a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram.

    I try to hold to Michael Brooks’ framing: “Be kind to people, be ruthless to systems”. I’m sure I’m imperfect in my efforts to do that, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pull my punches for a system that has caused so much death and destruction, often for corrupt reasons, and that is still facilitating genocide in Gaza, which is only the latest and most publicized of the many genocidal projects it has backed.

    I don’t know if I’m capable of talking about that in a way that wouldn’t upset you. I’m sorry for that, but I hope you can see that it is not directed at you or those you love.

    Good people exist within bad institutions all the time. That’s the nature of the world we’re in.

  7. Acolyte of Sagan says

    As one who grew up living close to two RAF bases, one that was home to a squadron of Vulcan bombers and the other to Tornado fighter jets, I can certainly sympathise with anybody who has to live with the noise levels described in the post.
    That said, people ike the quoted Bob Wilbur tend to grind my gears.

    Bob Wilbur thought he’d found a retirement home that would be a place of peace. Nestled against Admiralty Bay on the western edge of Whidbey Island, the three-story house is surrounded by trees and shoreline. It offers the kind of quiet that only an island can provide.

    So far, so idyllic.

    Except when the Growlers fly. As often as four days a week, Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft based at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly loops overhead as pilots practice touch-and-go landings.

    And there’s the own-goal.
    After moving from my childhood home I have lived in several small villages surrounded by farmland. I have lost count of the number of people who decided to relocate from cities for the peace of rural life, bought houses bordering farmland, and then spent years flooding the farmers, local councils and county councils with complaints about the noise of farm vehicles and animals; noise beginning at sun-up; late night harvesting; the smell of silage; the wind-blown dust from harvesting and dry fields dirtying their windows and cars; the smoke and smell from stubble-burning; the lanes past their houses being blocked by cattle being taken to and from the milking sheds (and said cattle munching on their elaborate and expensively landscaped garden borders as they pass); the influx of seasonal labourers, etc. etc. etc..
    So, yes, while I sympathise in general, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you don’t want your idyllic retreat ruined by noise, don’t buy an idyllic retreat next door to an obvious source of noise. Conversely, if you buy a house close to an air base, don’t then complain that the aircraft are disturbing your peace.

  8. says

    And there’s the own-goal.

    Another fair point. In thinking about it, though, I think there’s a larger point to be made about residential sacrifice zones.

    People who end up living right by an airbase – or an airport, for that matter – tend to do so because that’s what they can afford. It wouldn’t surprise me if that guy just didn’t read the fine print when he thought he’d found something in his budget. That’s on him, but also on the broader system. If there’s a shortage of available housing, odds are someone’s going to feel they have to take the short straw, and take the housing that’s hazardous to their health. That feels like a choice that maybe people shouldn’t have to make.

    All that said, I guess the eternal hunt for a perfect victim means I should have pasted more of the article, to cover those who WEREN’T just looking for a retirement home:

    Researchers estimated that two-thirds of Island County residents, including everyone in the cities of Oak Harbor and Coupeville, were exposed to potentially harmful levels of noise, as was 85% of the population of the Swinomish Indian Reservation.

    In total, an estimated 74,316 people were exposed to average noise levels that posed a risk of annoyance, 41,089 of whom were exposed to nighttime noise levels associated with adverse effects on sleep. Another 8,059 people — most of whom lived within fairly close proximity to aircraft landing strips – were exposed to noise levels that can pose a risk of hearing impairment over time.

    I presume we’re not going to blame the residents of an Indian reservation for their location?

  9. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Abe, you may have missed the wording of my first paragraph where I specifically said

    I can certainly sympathise with anybody who has tolive with the noise levels described in the post.

    . I even put emphasis on ‘has to’.

  10. says

    I did see that, I just also noticed that that man was the only person explicitly mentioned, and it left ambiguous who exactly WAS being affected. I apologize for the excessive snark. I also just wanted to add in that extra quote because it’s context I probably should have included in the first place.

  11. Acolyte of Sagan says

    No problem. Far too many people get bent out of shape over simple misunderstandings, so thank you for not being one of those people.

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