||This article focuses too much on specific examples without explaining their importance to its main subject. (July 2015)|
A noise map is a graphic representation of the sound level distribution existing in a given region, for a defined period.
Although some previous approaches had been made, the main international agreement and definitions for noise mapping were born in relation to the Environmental noise directive of the European Parliament and Council (Directive 2002/49/EC of 25 June 2002, commonly referred to as the END).
The END defines in Article 3:
"noise indicator shall mean a physical scale for the description of environmental noise, which has a relationship with a harmful effect;
strategic noise map shall mean a map designed for the global assessment of noise exposure in a given area due to different noise sources or for overall predictions for such an area."
EU Member States are required to produce strategic noise maps in their main cities, near the main transport infrastructures and near industrial sites. The main goals of the END are to make a diagnosis of noise pollution in Europe that can lead to action plans, and a noise management that can be implemented in terms of action plans and acoustical planning. The term 'strategic' is very important in this definition, because the management of environmental noise must be made for the long-term in a full area. Using a simile, we should not worry about the weather, but we must care about the global warming.
The main noise indicators for noise mapping are long-term averaged sound levels, determined over all the correspondent periods of a year. All of these indicators may be defined in terms of A-weighted decibels (dBA, dB(A)). The result can be determined by computation or measurement methods. Computation methods are widely preferred, because of the large amount of yearly averaged locations required.
Using either approach, a grid of receivers must be defined in order to measure or calculate noise levels. When results are obtained, using GIS tools, spatial interpolation must be applied in order to give a continuous graphical representation of sound levels. According to the END five dBA ranges are used for this contour (isoline) representation. The maps may be useful for planning stages, or for prior evaluation of action plans, determination of most polluted areas. With a strategic noise map, furthermore, an evaluation is possible to show the amount of people exposed within dBA ranges. Facade sound levels must be calculated or estimated from the previous map.
There are several methods for making noise maps. Some of them use empirical models (for instance, INM for airports noise mapping), but most of the models are based in the physics of propagation of sound outdoors (defined in ISO 9613). Today the use of software packages is easy, but the accuracy of results depends on the quality of input data. The main challenges for the acoustic consultant are the collection of data, creating useful models of the Street network, for example, and a good digital terrain model (DTM).
For train and road traffic noise, the description of the sources is usually made in terms of known parameters, such as speed, number of vehicles etc. Measurements are used for the validation of results.
For industrial noise map production, the most important thing is the description of noise sources: sound power levels, directivity, working periods. Although some databases can be found, in some cases it is necessary to make measurements (ISO 3740) for describing the source. To calculate the noise propagation, it is necessary to create a model with points, lines and areas for the noise sources. The creation of a good acoustic model can be quite complicated, and only experienced consultants can front this difficult task.
Simulation tools are very useful specially at planning stages, where measurements are not possible. The consultant can evaluate the effectiveness of action plans, in order to take decisions.
Examples for software packages used for noise mapping are:
- LimA 
- CadnA 
- Code_Tympan 
- dB Foresight 
- IMMI 
- Predictor 
- Olive Tree Lab Terrain
- SoundPlan 
- noise3D online 
- UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs: Noise Mapping England
- European Commission: Noise policy
- FHWA Traffic Noise Model