Virtual reality (VR) technology continues to push the boundaries of innovation, and its potential to create meaningful experiences is being harnessed in a project that recently won the “Best in Category: Visualize” at the XR Prize Challenge: Fight Climate Change. Led by UBC Forestry Professor Isla Myers-Smith, the collaborative effort between National Geographic Explorers and local communities resulted in the development of “Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk.” This ground-breaking VR project offers an immersive journey to Qikiqtaruk, an island in the Canadian Arctic, which serves as a poignant backdrop for exploring the impacts of climate change.
Unveiling the Arctic’s Climate Crisis
Isla has been conducting research on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Western Arctic since 2008 teaming up with Indigenous park rangers and government biologists to monitor the responses of tundra ecosystems to climate change. “If we want to understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic, we all need to work together combining Indigenous knowledge with scientific data to build the best picture we can of how these systems are changing.”
This project brought together scientists, park rangers, educators, and immersive content creators to shed light on the effects of climate change in the Arctic. The collaboration involved National Geographic Explorers Jeff Kerby, Isla Myers-Smith, and Martin Edström, along with Senior Park Ranger Richard Gordon and Aurora Research Institute Outreach Coordinator Annika Trimble from Inuvik, Arctic Canada. Their combined efforts aimed to present both Inuvialuit and scientific perspectives on the issue.
The Urgency of Arctic Climate Change
The Arctic region is experiencing a warming trend four times faster than the global average, as highlighted in the 2022 IPCC report. Isla emphasizes the urgency of understanding and addressing the situation. With melting sea ice, shifting vegetation patterns and thawing permafrost, the Arctic faces a multitude of challenges. These changes disrupt local transportation, threaten heritage sites along the coast and potentially double the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, due to the remote nature of these occurrences, perceiving the causes and consequences of climate change can be challenging.
Harnessing Immersive Technology for Change
Jeff Kerby, a researcher and science photographer at Aarhus University, Denmark, recognizes the power of immersive technology in bridging this communication gap. He asserts that people who directly witness and experience the impacts of climate change are more likely to take action. With this in mind, “Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk” was developed as an interactive VR experience, transporting users to the heart of Arctic climate change on Qikiqtaruk, also known as Herschel Island.
Embarking on a Virtual Journey
The VR experience allows users to explore the island and perceive the drastic changes occurring due to climate change. From the thawing of frozen ground to the encroachment of shrubs and the flooding of a historic settlement, the journey provides a vivid representation of the rates and magnitudes of environmental transformation. By enabling users to witness these changes firsthand, the project aims to evoke empathy and prompt action.
Isla shares how a global pandemic helped inspire this project. “When the pandemic hit, we could no longer get to our field sites and we had time to put our drone imagery and scientific data to a different use. We developed this virtual reality experience with our northern partners to visualize climate change impacts to communicate the rates and magnitudes of change occurring on Qikiqtaruk. When you see climate change impacts with your own eyes, you are more likely to advocate for climate action.”
A Fusion of Authenticity and Scientific Data
To create a truly immersive environment, the project incorporates field-collected drone imagery and authentic soundscapes captured from Arctic ecosystems. The VR experience leverages real scientific data and local perspectives, weaving together a compelling narrative narrated by Richard Gordon and Isla. This fusion of authenticity and scientific rigor enhances the credibility and impact of the project.
Accessibility and Collaboration
The “Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk” VR experience has been designed for easy accessibility, catering to a wide range of devices and platforms. It can be enjoyed on VR headsets, regular computers, or even mobile devices, making it accessible to audiences across the globe, including Arctic communities themselves. This inclusive approach ensures that the project’s message reaches diverse audiences.
Isla points out that: “Climate change threatens the way of life for Northern communities. But, local people aren’t always able to visit sites further from their homes due to challenges of travel and high fuel costs. The VR environment allows Arctic people to see the rates and magnitudes of change in their homeland, and think about how they can best manage those landscapes for the future.”
“Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk” showcases the power of virtual reality in raising awareness about climate change and its devastating effects on the Arctic region. By merging scientific data, local perspectives, and immersive technology, this innovative project provides an unprecedented opportunity for users to understand and engage with the challenges faced by Arctic people.
Isla and her research team have just returned to the Arctic to continue their Arctic climate change research and further develop the VR project. “This summer are taking the VR experience into Arctic communities. I am just back from the town of Akalvik where we shared the experience in the school and at a community event. It was great to see everyone from young children and high school students through to Elders engaging with this project and chatting about the changes that are going on in the Western Canadian Arctic.”
Through virtual exploration of Qikiqtaruk, individuals from around the world can gain a deeper appreciation for the urgency of addressing climate change and its impact on fragile ecosystems. As the project prepares for its public release, it holds the potential to inspire action and drive meaningful change in the fight against climate change.