Virtual reality forest, created by geographers, aims to help understand effects of climate change

A virtual reality forest, created by geographers, is aiming to help people connect with how forests may change as the climate warms.

Researchers at Penn State University are experimenting with virtual reality to enable people to walk through a simulated forest of today and see what various futures may hold for the trees, in order to understand the effects of climate change.

Alexander Klippel, professor of geography at Penn State University, said: “The main problem that needs to be addressed is that climate change is abstract. Its meaning only unfolds in 10, 15 or 100 years.  It is very hard for people to understand and plan and make decisions.”

The researchers combined information on forest composition with information on forest ecology to create a forest similar to those found in Wisconsin. 

The research team are also working with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin to assist with the project. Alexander Klippel added: “Inspired by the Menominee’s deeper connection to the environment we believe that experiencing the future is essential for all environmental decision making.”

The virtual-reality experience takes the extensive climate change models, sophisticated vegetation models and ecological models and creates a 2050 forest that people can experience by walking through it, investigating the tree types and understory, and seeing the changes.

A virtual walk through this Wisconsin forest shows tall trees and understory. Strollers, using VR headsets and controllers, can reveal the types of trees in the forest, change elevations from forest floor to birds-eye view and in-between, and more closely examine the forest composition.

The researchers chose two future scenarios, a base scenario and a hot and dry scenario. Using VR, visitors to the forest can see the changes in tree types and abundance and compare the base scenario to the hot and dry scenario.

Penn State University’s research team aim is to create a medium to communicate things in the future or the past that allows for a more holistic and visceral access so that non-experts can see the changes brought on by climate change.

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. 

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