UW News

June 14, 2022

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

UW News

magnifying glass and stars and Antarctica closeup

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

A new project uses virtual reality to help communicate what climate models are predicting: Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing Earth’s temperature, melting glaciers that could create many feet of global sea level rise by the end of this century.

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

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

The headsets and accompanying booklet are available as of this spring for checkout by community groups, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, youth groups or 4-H Clubs, which agree to take responsibility for the equipment. The Seattle Public Library is looking at more ways to make the experiences available to the public.

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

riverside with trees and cleared 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/The Seattle Public Library

Through the headset, the user sees the shores of the Duwamish River, first with large conifers and then with small buildings in the foreground and today’s South Park Bridge in the distance. A voiceover explains how emissions cause sea-level rise, and an aerial view shows how that might look on city streets. Users can pick blueberries, clean up garbage along the shoreline, and finally set sea-level rise along the shoreline from 1 to 5 feet.

“We developed this experience so that Seattle communities could virtually walk through a future Seattle and see how climate change is shaping our landscape, including drastically rising sea levels,” said Juan Rubio, the digital media and learning program manager 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 riverside and aerial view of city

While standing on a rebuilt shoreline of the Duwamish River, left, the user can choose to make sea levels rise from 1 to 5 feet. The text in yellow shows the probability that the water level along the Duwamish will reach that level by different dates. On the right is an aerial view of a city as water levels rise.University of Washington/The 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 with video game development, I had never made anything for VR. I associated VR mostly with entertainment uses before working on this project,” said lead developer Terrell Strong, a UW undergraduate in computer science. “I hope the experience makes people more aware of the history of the environments they exist in, and more mindful of their influence into 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 the projections for sea level rise depending on the location along the Washington coast, the climate scenario and the amount of geological rebound after the last ice age. Both products are based on sea-level rise projections published in 2018 for Washington state.

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

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

The VR experience was support by an innovation grant from UW EarthLab, Seattle Public Utilities, the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota and the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Seattle. Additional programming was 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 hroop@umn.edu, Strong at stront2@cs.washington.edu and Grodnik-Nagle at Ann.Grodnik-Nagle@seattle.gov. At SPL, contact communications manager Elisa Murray at elisa.murray@spl.org. Community groups can request a kit here.