The UW, Seattle Public Library, Seattle Public Utilities collaboration uses VR glasses to visualize sea level rise in Seattle

Environment | Population health | Science | Social Sciences | UW and the community | UW News Blog

June 14, 2022

The VR experience begins by explaining how gases like carbon dioxide create an invisible blanket around the Earth, trapping solar radiation. The user can hold a magnifying glass that makes Earth’s atmosphere appear blue. Later in the experience, the narrator explains how Antarctic glaciers, right, contribute to rising seas.University of Washington/Seattle Public Library

New project uses virtual reality to help communicate what climate models predict: greenhouse gas emissions are raising Earth’s temperature, melting glaciers, which could create several feet of sea level rise the sea on a global scale by the end of this century.

The Our Future Duwamish project, available to community groups through the Seattle Public Library, uses Oculus Quest 2 glasses to help viewers imagine the rising seas from a vantage point along Seattle’s South Waterway .

“Creative and interactive communication tools like virtual reality experiences offer a powerful way to spark conversations and action around climate change by helping to show how a global-scale issue is manifesting in very real ways in our own communities. said project manager Heidi Roop, who started the effort at UW Climate Impacts Group and is now at the University of Minnesota.

The headsets and accompanying booklet are available this spring for community groups, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, youth groups or 4-H Clubs, who agree to take responsibility for the ‘equipment. The Seattle Public Library is exploring other ways to make experiences accessible to the public.

The VR experience builds on a Seattle Public Library project that used photos, maps and historical artifacts to show the history of the Duwamish River – from when the Duwamish Tribe used the waterway for transportation, to industrial pollution from the 1900s to today. cleaning effort. It extends the timeline to a future in which the seafront is clean but rising sea levels lead to more flooding of coastal areas and lowlands.

riverside with trees and open landscape with bridge

The Duwamish River in the 1700s, left, and a simplified version of the current site, right, with the South Park Bridge in the background.University of Washington/Seattle Public Library

Through the headset, the user sees the banks of the Duwamish River, first with tall evergreens, then with small buildings in the foreground and the current South Park Bridge in the distance. A voiceover explains how emissions are causing sea levels to rise, and an aerial view shows what it might look like on city streets. Users can pick blueberries, clean up trash along the shoreline, and finally adjust the sea level elevation along the shoreline from 1 to 5 feet.

“We developed this experience so that communities in Seattle could virtually walk through a future Seattle and see how climate change is shaping our landscape, including drastic sea level rise,” said Juan Rubio, program manager of digital media and learning at SPL. “We hope that creating an immersive experience will make the concept more tangible and inspire communities to think about how to adapt and build resilience to climate change.”

laser tool by the river and aerial view of the city

While standing on a reconstructed shoreline of the Duwamish River, left, the user can choose to raise the sea level by 1 to 5 feet. Text in yellow indicates the probability that the water level along the Duwamish will reach this level on different dates. On the right, an aerial view of a city as the water level rises.University of Washington/Seattle Public Library

The VR experience ends with recommendations for reducing fossil fuel emissions, such as choosing to ride a bike instead of driving a car that burns fossil fuels and engaging in local climate action efforts, with contacts listed in the booklet.

“Although I had experience developing video games, I had never done anything for virtual reality. I associated virtual reality mainly with entertainment uses before working on this project” , said lead developer Terrell Strong, a UW computer science undergraduate student, “I hope the experience will make people more aware of the history of the environments in which they exist and more aware of their influence. in the future.”

In addition to the VR experience, the team worked with Tableau to create an interactive data visualization, available on the Climate Impacts Group website, that displays sea level rise projections based on the location along the Washington coast, climate scenario, and amount of geologic rebound after the last ice age. Both products are based on sea level rise projections published in 2018 for Washington State.

“These projections and visualizations of sea level rise are hyperlocal – they are specific to the Washington Coast, Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River Valley,” said Ann Grodnik-Nagle, lead climate adaptation policy at Seattle Public Utilities.

“The VR experience provides an on-the-ground experience of sea level rise in South Park,” she said. “It’s more than gradations on a map, it’s really about getting a sense of what a 5-foot rise in sea level would look like.”

The VR experience was supported by an innovation grant from UW EarthLab, Seattle Public Utilities, National Science Foundation, University of Minnesota, and Seattle Academy of Interactive Entertainment. Additional programming was done by Seattle developer Robert Rood with support from artists Nora Hailey and Cody Stamm. The experience is narrated by KEXP sound engineer Julian Martlew.

For more information, contact Roop at [email protected], Strong at [email protected], and Grodnik-Nagle at [email protected] At SPL, contact Communications Manager Elisa Murray at [email protected] Community groups can request a kit here.

Tag(s): climate change • Climate Impacts Group • College of the Environment • EarthLab • Reality Lab


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