Climate Planners Use VR To Show Communities How Sea-Level Rise Decimates Them

Graphic: Juliano Calil, Virtual Planet LLC

Earth is the hottest it’s ever been, it feels like a new “mega gargantuan Godzilla” storm record gets broken every other month, and environmental displacement is already threatening to upend certain communities’ livelihoods, and worse still, their histories.

But all of that, and the countless other apocalyptic-sounding climate change headlines that no doubt cross your feed every day, struggle to answer one question for a lot of folks:

“OK, but how does that affect me though?”

Because when it comes to communicating any issue at a global scale, things just inherently start to sound theatrical, no matter how much science gets thrown around. A recent Pew Research report found that, across the countries surveyed, a median of 20 per cent consider climate change a minor threat at best.

To help conceptualise the problem on an individual level, one group in Maryland is letting residents watch their community succumb to surrounding sea-level rise via the magic of VR.

According to an NPR report this week, the project’s part of an educational outreach effort in Turner Station, a historic African American community near Baltimore. The virtual reality simulation combines drone footage, local elevation and topographical maps, and 3-D modelling to show residents why an upcoming urban planning project to control flooding, already a persistently destructive problem in the area, is desperately needed. The state of Maryland as a whole can expect nearby sea levels to rise as high as 2 metres by the end of the century, NPR reports.

“The level of Chesapeake Bay water with respect to the land is now rising about three times as fast as it was during Colonial times, threatening more densely built communities and infrastructure that developed over the interim,” states a 2018 University of Maryland Centre for Environment Science report per NPR.

One of the program’s developers and an adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Juliano Calil, first tried out the simulation with his current hometown, Santa Cruz, California. Another mark-up is currently in the works for Long Beach as well, and the team hopes to incorporate proposed solutions into future prototypes, such as how an urban planning project like a sea wall could influence the effects of sea-level rise.

The ultimate aim of this work is simple: “to start a conversation and help folks visualise the impacts [of climate change] and the solutions, and also discuss the trade-offs between them,” Calil told NPR.   

Thanks to its uncanny ability at building empathy, many scientists and researchers have turned to virtual reality over the years to help parse the abstract terror of global climate change. There’s even an annual hackathon themed to the very subject.

According to one study at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a single VR experience can be evocative enough to influence a person’s actions; when participants “felt” what a virtual tree felt as it was being cut down via vibration and sound outputs, researchers found they were more likely to conserve paper afterward.

One simulation cooked up by researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon back in 2017 gives you a front-row seat to the effects of climate change as it kills off a coral reef. It’s a process with the absolutely metal (though objectively grim) name “ocean acidification.” You can hear more about it in the video below.

For additional perspective, you can also check out how your literal every breath affects the world around you, or perhaps you’d rather just sit back watch the entirety of Greenland melt. According to its Steam reviews, apparently the whole thing fizzles out in about 10 minutes.

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