Communicating the effects of climate change such as sea level rise can be a daunting task, especially when the change is gradual and the most severe impacts are still years away.
It may seem like the most effective way to convince community leaders and the public to take action is to time travel into the future and show the damages to come.
Now, researchers have worked together to provide the next best thing: using virtual reality to show the residents of coastal cities, including Santa Cruz, the fate of their home as a result of sea level rise.
The team—including researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the Lemann Center at Stanford, the Nature Conservancy, the city of Santa Cruz and Virtual Planet Technologies—explored virtual reality as a tool for communicating the challenges of sea level rise. They published their research on May 13 in the peer-reviewed journal Water.
“This is the first time that people can actually see and experience what the future of their communities could look like in a way that can help inform a conversation about the future,” says Juliano Calil, senior research fellow at Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center for the Blue Economy and lead researcher on the project.
Calil started off his career as an IT consultant. Eventually, he began to desire a more fulfilling career path that would benefit the planet. He quit his job to pursue a Ph.D. in ocean sciences at UCSC. While flying drones to study how king tides affect Santa Cruz for his research, he realized he could use the high-quality visuals from the drone to communicate sea level rise to the community.
“Through the Ph.D. program, I found the need for a different way to communicate some of the complex issues related to climate change,” he says.
His time as a Ph.D. student and passion for technology inspired him to start Virtual Planet Technologies. This climate communication startup, based in Santa Cruz, develops immersive and innovative ways to inspire people to have conversations about issues such as sea level rise. It also led to the creation of the Sea Level Rise Explorer Framework, a virtual reality experience of various coastal cities around the U.S., including Long Beach and Santa Cruz.
For the Santa Cruz project, Calil teamed up with Tiffany Wise-West. She is the program manager for the Resilient Coast Santa Cruz initiative, which focuses on ways to adapt the Santa Cruz coastline to address the impacts of climate change. In addition to its coastal management efforts, the initiative involves robust community engagement—and using virtual reality proved to be a powerful communication tool.
“It’s an immersive and tangible way to make concepts like climate change real for people,” Wise-West says.
The Santa Cruz team organized more than 50 events that led to some 1,500 conversations with city residents and stakeholders. Through virtual reality headsets, participants became immersed in a hyper-realistic future Santa Cruz that has been affected by sea level rise.
The visuals were created using 360° aerial images of beaches and West Cliff Drive, layered with the projected shoreline changes for these areas. In addition to viewing the city’s potential future, participants learned about the problems sea level rise creates and potential solutions for addressing them. After the experience, they were asked to complete a brief exit survey to help researchers better understand the participants’ awareness of sea level rise and their preferences for various coastal management solutions.
“There was a huge difference between how people were talking about [sea level rise] and how engaged they were after seeing things in virtual reality,” says Calil.
The team also set up a virtual reality exhibit at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library in November 2019. The exhibit reached about 250 people before the library closed three months later due to Covid-19.
According to librarian Bjorn Jones, the most exciting part for library staff was seeing the reaction participants had when they returned to the front desk and shared their experience.
“People were excited about trying the new technology and were quite surprised at the information they were receiving through the program,” he says.
Jones agrees that the exhibit had a powerful impact, and the data supports this. The first question on the exit survey, for example, asked participants to rate how their awareness of sea level rise has changed as a result of the experience, with four being the most significant change. Out of more than 160 exit surveys, the average change was 3.1.
Although the pandemic put a temporary halt on in-person outreach events, the team developed mobile phone and web-based applications to continue bringing the virtual reality experience to people.
Santa Cruz is already experiencing substantial damages from sea level rise. Parts of the scenic West Cliff drive, for instance, are rapidly eroding into the Pacific, and strong El Niño years can leave coastal roads under water for weeks.
If left unchecked, scientists predict that the effects of sea level rise on Santa Cruz will be extensive and costly—the city will need to replace its coastal armoring by 2060, for example, to hold back the sea and protect its $1 billion of at-risk property and infrastructure. Statewide, sea level rise and erosion could swallow 67% of California’s beaches.
Katherine O’Dea, executive director for the nonprofit Save Our Shores, says that taking action to adapt the shoreline and make it more resilient is essential for conserving California’s coast. Using virtual reality, she adds, is an effective way to promote this message.
“If you watch the experience and see what’s happening, particularly around Main Beach, it’s alarming,” says O’Dea. “It’s hard for people not to become aware, seeing it visually.”
Experience the Sea Level Rise Explorer and see how sea level rise will affect Santa Cruz at virtualplanet.tech/santa-cruz.