James Marvin Phelps/Flickr

It’s not desolate. The sky is streaked with planes hurtling to and from Los Angeles.

If you listen to the sounds of the Mojave Desert, you might hear wind rustling through twisted, shrubby trees, or the wild screech of a red-tailed hawk. You might even hear the sound of a lizard scuttling up a rock formation. The stones amplify the acoustics.

But every 30 seconds, you might also hear the rumble of a plane barreling across the open sky on a flight path from Los Angeles. Occasionally, somewhere in Joshua Tree’s 800,000 acres, you’d hear coins jangling in a vending machine, or traffic humming in the parking lot. It’s a mash-up of man-made and natural sounds, of wilderness and urban life.

Researchers from Arizona State University have set out to chart the aural environment in Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Since 2013, the Listen(n) team has captured and archived sound in a digital database. They use layered, surround-sound recording techniques to create an immersive environment. The researchers paired the soundscapes with panoramic and spherical images on an Oculus Rift headset to simulate the experience of being situated in the park. A buzzing fly seems to circle your head before flitting away. The airplane starts out as a distant note—long and deep, as if bowed on a cello—before roaring above you.

Later this month, they’ll debut new sound compositions containing excerpts from the recordings.

The project nods to the importance of sustainability and stewardship and the imprint that human activity leaves behind—effects more enduring than contrails drawn across the sky.

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