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Can a hike through a VR forest make people understand climate change?

Scientists are letting people walk through virtual Wisconsin trees and then showing them the effects of changing global temperatures.

Can a hike through a VR forest make people understand climate change?
[Image: courtesy Jiawei Huang]
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We’ve all seen images of California on fire and Houston flooded after Hurricane Harvey, but other signs of climate change are more subtle, and difficult to envision. Some are happening far away, like the destruction of our rain forests, and others will happen decades in the future, like the impact of a warming world on how trees will grow. When seeing is believing, how can scientists get people to understand these more abstract effects of climate change? With the help of virtual reality, researchers hope.

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Geographers at Penn State have created a VR forest, so anyone can walk through simulations of what different climate models mean for the future of our trees. The VR experience, which simulates a Wisconsin forest, was created as part of a National Science Foundation grant, and in partnership with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

Climate change is becoming more prominent, especially in news coverage, says Alexander Klippel, geography professor at Penn State and director of the university’s Center for Immersive Experiences. “But it’s still something not a lot of people are experiencing themselves. It’s not happening in their backyard,” he says. “An immersive experience can reduce this psychological distance, both in terms of space but also in terms of time.” Rather than communicating climate change through complex charts and graphs and maps, the researchers can communicate it through a personal experience.

[Image: courtesy Jiawei Huang]
Walking through the virtual Wisconsin forest (the researchers can share the experience for people who own a gaming computer and VR headset), you can explore different climate models come to life and see the effect of that change on how many trees grow in an area, or how tall they get, and the changes to the vegetation in the forest’s understory. You can switch to a bird’s-eye view or different elevations, instantly get information on tree species, and switch between deterrent climate scenarios to compare the impacts.

The real forest (left) and the virtual replica (right). [Image: courtesy Jiawei Huang]
Researchers picked a Wisconsin forest to model because of how diverse the state’s forests are—tribal forests there are older than surrounding forest and have kept almost all of their plant diversity from 50 years ago—and because they were inspired by the Menominee Tribe. “This project is a [National Science Foundation] program that specifically addresses the connection between society and nature,” Klippel says. “And if you look into who has really a connection with nature . . . the Menominee have this really close connection with the forest, and they have an approach to managing the forest that is broader and deeper than what we often find in our Western civilizations.”

[Image: courtesy Jiawei Huang]
Klippel hopes this immersive experience can help people understand potential forest futures, and how different actions and mitigation efforts we take now could affect what that forest looks like in the coming decades. It’s also a way to reach everyone, whether they’re an expert who wants to visualize a climate model, a policymaker who needs to understand the future impacts of their decisions, or a member of the public who wants to experience a forest in a new way. “It’s really a tool that can add to the ways we have at our disposal to communicate the science behind our decisions,” he says, “and the science behind changes in the environment.”