Beautiful fall colors reflect off a pond at Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin.

VR helps visualise future of forests

Image credit: Jason P Ross/Dreamstime

Geographers in the US have created a virtual-reality (VR) forest, which simulates what various futures may hold under different climate-change scenarios.

The researchers at Penn State University combined information on forest composition with information on forest ecology to create a forest similar to those found in Wisconsin. In VR, people can walk through a simulated forest of today and see what various futures may hold for the trees in relation to the effects of climate change. 

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

The VR experience draws from extensive climate change models, sophisticated vegetation models, and ecological models, and all of these combined create a 2050 forest that people can experience by walking through it, investigating the tree types and understory, and seeing the changes.

The researchers first created a forest of today in which they used data from a typical Wisconsin forest. Here, the researchers could have used strict or deterministic rules and placed trees in the forest, but instead opted 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 randomised in the approach so that the trees don’t look exactly the same,” said Jiawei Huang, a graduate student in geography. 

The researchers said: “Procedural rules allowed us to efficiently and reproducibly translate the parameters into a simulated forest.” They used analytical modelling to convert the data for procedural modelling and also worked with ecological experts to provide feedback and evaluate the results.

To capture the ecology of the forest, the researchers used LANDIS II, a well-established, powerful model in the world of environmental research. They noted that the model is powerful enough to deal with events such as windstorms, fire, and flooding, as well as climate change.

According to the researchers, the virtual walk through of this Wisconsin forest shows tall trees and understory. Furthermore, 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.

“Our approach to creating visceral experiences of forests under climate change can facilitate communication among experts, policymakers, and the general public,” the researchers report.

The team’s aim is to also 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.

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