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What if you could see into the future of climate change?

virtual reality climate change tour
Stephanie Tyski, graduate student at Paul Smith’s College, provides a demo of her self-created virtual reality program designed to educate students about the impact of climate change on local ecologies. Photo provided

In this Adirondack reality, you can virtually

By Cayte Bosler

On a summer’s day, in the high-altitude forests of New York’s Adirondack region, black-capped tits dart into the morning air, bugs in their tiny beaks, disappearing into the bushy branches of spruce and fir trees. From the fragrant wands of evergreens come their song. Also a flycatcher perches on a branch, its song is curious and hoarse. Trillium flowers keep company with moss and lichens in the understory.

Years pass, in that same boreal forest summer announces itself earlier, warm and humid. Where’s the flycatcher? His song is gone. Newcomers from the south, the crested tit, a mockingbird, are spotted.

Decades unfold, the planet has warmed 2 degrees Celsius. The conifers gave way to oaks that now dominate the landscape. A sea of ​​trillium is no longer underfoot. Instead, other flower names bloom among the deciduous trees: bluets, greenbriar, miterweed, spring beauty, mountain laurel.

Stephanie Tyski, a graduate student of Paul Smith’s College, felt compelled to glimpse the future of the Adirondacks’ forests, so she developed a device to show her interpretation. What students see when they put on their virtual reality headsets is a forest that slowly changes in this way.

“A few of my participants told me that when they put on the headphones, they expected to see the forest on fire or a barren landscape. Instead, they were greeted with – and this is a genuine quote that always makes me laugh – a “soothing story” and real situation.

The virtual trail Tyski designed is from the Adirondack boreal forest at Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). It unfolds digitally in striking detail, even birds chirping. In the 2 degrees heated world, participants can snoop around in the same spot and examine changes to trees, flowers and birds. It’s still a forest of chatter, but drastically different, more akin to the climate of present-day West Virginia.

“Communicating about climate change is important to me because there is so much talk in the world and little way to understand it. There’s also so much fear mongering and misinformation in climate change communications that I wanted to create something that wouldn’t scare or overly depress people. I wanted to give them a realistic situation to think about.”

– Stephanie Tyski, graduate student at Paul Smith’s College

Inspired by immersive environmental education initiatives at The laboratory of Christian Schott in New Zealand, Tyski taught herself to program for virtual reality, excited about the opportunity to engage people in her corner of the world with their local environment.

“There’s a lot of talk about climate change at the global level, that can feel so remote and disconnected,” Tyski said. “Bringing it to the Adirondacks, and the VIC in particular, will allow people to better connect with the subject.” People often come forward appreciating the magnitude of the environmental transformation that will inevitably come.

the current forest of Paul Smith
The participants are greeted by the current state of the VIC trail, a spruce complex. Photo provided

During her research, she collected comments from students of Paul Smith’s who shared anonymously:

“I didn’t know that a few degrees could bring so much change to an environment.” And, “It saddens me that future generations will not experience the coniferous, dense forest that the VIC now has,” they wrote. And that after the 2 degrees warming: “It is no longer the VIC.”

Many scientists have speculated what this region might look like under different degrees of warming, including how species are likely to be affected. Tyski based her images on Jerry Jenkin’s descriptions in “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” as well as the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In Jenkin’s best case, under varying temperature analysesBy the year 2100, the Adirondacks will end up with a climate similar to what West Virginia has today. With a more extreme increase in warming, the forecast more closely resembles that of Georgia.

future forest
The view of the conifers changes to be dominated by oaks in a world warmed by 2 degrees Celsius. Photo provided

Tyski plans to design more immersive experiences to educate people about climate change by founding the company Timberdoodle Productions (Timberdoodle is another name for the American woodcockher favorite bird.)

By making several environmental outcomes feel immediate and visceral, she hopes to empower those who are already building a more sustainable world, she said.

“That way, to be able to look at something that’s half a mile and see how drastically it seemed to change,” one student told Tyski. “It puts everything very sharply back into perspective as to why changing this course, the course we’re going in, matters.”


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