How Virtual Reality Can Help People Better Understand Climate Change As communities plan for sea level rise, it can be hard to convince residents of the dramatic changes in store. A California scientist is testing one possible answer: virtual reality.

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How Virtual Reality Can Help People Better Understand Climate Change

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How do you show people and convince them of a future that has never been? That's one of the biggest challenges facing climate scientists and communities trying to convey the magnitude of the coming environmental change. NPR's Nathan Rott has the story of a climate scientist who is using technology to try and drive it home.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Near the back wall of a crowded southeast Baltimore auditorium, Monica Wimberly (ph) settles into a metal chair and slips a bulky gray headset over her eyes.

JULIANO CALIL: Is it too tight?

MONICA WIMBERLY: Oh, no, it's just right.

CALIL: Can you see a screen in front of you?


ROTT: It's a virtual reality headset, the kind that you usually see at Best Buy, not a community meeting. And the man you hear helping her is Juliano Calil.

WIMBERLY: Click anywhere on the screen to continue.

CALIL: Yeah.

ROTT: Calil is a climate researcher and teaches at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He's also the guy who helped create the virtual reality program that Wimberly is about to experience.

CALIL: If you feel a little dizzy, just close your eyes and take it off and then I'll come help you, OK?

WIMBERLY: Virtual Planet sea level - OK, this is nice.

ROTT: Wimberly is getting an immersive Google Earth-like view of a park in her neighborhood as it looks today. It's a low-lying industrial area close to the port. There's a shoreline, baseball diamonds, a senior center. Her view is like a bird's hovering just off the coast looking inland. But this program also shows a future.

WIMBERLY: Then it tells me to slide this over. And then it says I can go six feet.

ROTT: A future with rising seas.

WIMBERLY: Ooh, it got dark. Oh, my God. The water's right there, the bridge - oh, gee.

ROTT: Wimberly is now seeing what could happen here as sea levels rise. Here's Connie Monroe (ph) Hue Galloway Sr. (ph) and Michelle Gregory (ph) seeing the same.

CONNIE MONROE: Oh, oh, the water's coming up.

HUE GALLOWAY SR: Oh, shoot. That's going to take out a lot.

MICHELLE GREGORY: Wow. Yeah. That's a lot of water.

ROTT: The ballparks are underwater. The senior center is partly underwater.

MONROE: Our house is underwater. You know what? It's sort of scary the fact that the water could come up that high.

ROTT: Climate change and its impacts are scary. Sea levels could rise two to four feet in Maryland by the end of the century. Under a worst-case scenario, researchers at the University of Maryland say it could also go far higher. But for many people living near the coast, sea level rise is not top of mind. Outside of the community center, Jackie Specht, the coastal science program manager at The Nature Conservancy, says that's partly because it's just so hard for most folks to fathom.

JACKIE SPECHT: If it's hard to imagine, it's hard to kind of face and prioritize it, especially when there are so many tangible issues that they're facing on the day to day.

ROTT: That is why The Nature Conservancy partnered with Calil, the climate scientist we met earlier, to make the virtual reality program that people are using inside - to bring a sense of immediacy and realness to the conversation, not just in Baltimore but also thousands of miles away on the gold sand beaches of Long Beach, Calif.

CALIL: One thing you can help is with spotting the drone so...

ROTT: Calil has agreements in place to make three of these virtual reality program so far - the one in Baltimore, here in Long Beach and another in his current hometown, Santa Cruz - all coastal cities that are already facing the impacts of rising seas. After launching his drone, Calil explains that those impacts will be different in every different place. After getting these photos, Calil will use local elevation data, flood information and sea level rise projections to make site-specific renderings for what each place should expect to see with rising seas.

CALIL: The idea is to help the city to have a tool to show folks what some of the projected impacts are but also what some of the solutions could look like.

ROTT: In the future versions of these programs, Calil is hoping to make solutions part of the experience. So a person wearing the headset can not only push a button and watch sea levels rise, but they could also click another to see how their city is planning to adapt to that change.

CALIL: Maybe we want to build a sea wall. So what would that look like? And then we can project - show the sea wall and look at the impacts to the beach. You have a sea wall, but over time, you may lose the beach.

ROTT: By illustrating those trade-offs, by giving people a way to see those changes, Calil hopes to make people better informed and more engaged as towns around the country begin planning for an uncertain future.


ROTT: Back in southeast Baltimore, Sharon Oliver (ph) has spent a few minutes with the virtual reality program when she starts to shake.

SHARON OLIVER: Oh, my gracious. I am not ready for this. How do I get out of here? I'm not ready for this.

CALIL: Just close your eyes. Close your eyes and take it off.

ROTT: Oliver has a phobia of water. She's lived through flooding here caused by rain. After she takes a beat, Isaac Hametz, a research architect who's working on a proposed climate adaptation project here, brings her to a table with a topographical 3D map of the area and what they plan to do.

ISAAC HAMETZ: OK. So you just saw the sea level rise.

OLIVER: Right.

HAMETZ: OK. Good. You got that. So this is kind of what we're - the proposed design is to help prevent some of the flooding that you saw...

OLIVER: OK. So what would this be?

ROTT: Oliver spends about 10 minutes at the table grilling Hametz with questions about how they aim to prevent the flooding - with what materials, who's going to pay for it and on and on and on. Hametz is more than happy to answer every one. Nathan Rott, NPR News.


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