Understanding climate change through forest simulators

The effects of climate change are sometimes difficult to grasp, but now a virtual reality forest, created by geographers, can let people walk through a simulated forest of today and see what various futures may hold for the trees. The researchers combined information on forest composition with information on forest ecology to create a forest similar to those found in Wisconsin. “As part of an NSF-funded CNH program grant with Erica Smithwick (E. Willard and Ruby S. Miller Professor of Geography at Penn State) we are working with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin,” said Klippel, who also is director of Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experience. “Inspired by the Menominee’s deeper connection to the environment we believe that experiencing the future is essential for all environmental decision making.”

The first step, of course, was to create a forest of today. Using data on a typical Wisconsin forest, the researchers could have used strict or deterministic rules and placed trees in the forest. However, they chose to use a procedural method that would populate the forest using a set of ecological rules, creating a more organic, natural feel. “Orientation and small details of the trees are also randomized in the approach so that the trees don’t look exactly the same,” said Jiawei Huang, graduate student in geography, Penn State.

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.

The simulator scored high on heuristic evaluation criteria like natural engagement, compatibility with the user’s task and domain, natural expression of action, coordination and realistic feedback, navigation and orientation support, and sense of presence. The virtual environment is composed of realistic aesthetics, color schemes, illumination conditions, 3D models, and textures. The interactions with the menu, the environment, and the virtual objects are intuitive and compatible with user’s expectations.

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source Penn State. “Virtual reality forests could help understanding of climate change.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2020.).

Huang, J., Lucash, M.S., Scheller, R.M. and Klippel, A., 2020. Walking through the forests of the future: using data-driven virtual reality to visualize forests under climate change. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, pp.1-24.