In this Adirondack reality, you virtually can
By Cayte Bosler
On a summer day, in the upland woods of New York’s Adirondack region, black-capped chickadees dart into the morning air, carrying critters in their little beaks, disappearing into the bristling boughs of spruce and fir trees. From the fragrant wands of evergreen come their singing. A flycatcher, too, alights on a branch, his song is curious and raspy. Trillium flowers keep company with moss and lichens in the understory.
Years go by, in that same boreal forest, summer announces itself earlier, warm and damp. Where is the flycatcher? His song is gone. Newcomers from the south, the tufted titmouse, a mockingbird, are spotted.
Decades unfold, the planet has warmed by 2 degrees celsius. The conifers gave way to oaks who now dominate the landscape. A sea of trillium is no longer underfoot. Instead, other flower names bloom among the deciduous trees: bluets, greenbriar, miterwort, spring beauty, mountain laurel.
Stephanie Tyski, a graduate student of Paul Smith’s College, felt called to provide a glimpse of the future of the forests of the Adirondacks, so she developed a device to show her interpretation. What students see when they strap on her virtual reality headset, is a forest slowly transforming in this way.
“I had a few of my participants tell me that when they put the headset on, they expected to see the forest on fire or a barren landscape. Instead, they were greeted with – and this is an actual quote that always makes me laugh – a ‘soothing narrative’ and real situation.”
The virtual trail Tyski designed is of the Adirondack boreal forest at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). It unfolds digitally in striking details, even birds chirp. In the 2-degree warmed world, participants can poke around the same spot, investigating changes to trees, flowers and birds. It’s still a forest full of chatter, but drastically different, more akin to the climate of today’s West Virginia.
“Communicating climate change matters to me because there is so much talk in the world and very little way to understand it. There’s also so much fear mongering and misinformation in climate change communication that I wanted to create something that wouldn’t scare people or overly depress them. I wanted to give them a realistic situation to contemplate.”– Stephanie Tyski, graduate student at Paul Smith’s College
Inspired by immersive environmental education initiatives at Christian Schott’s Lab in New Zealand, Tyski taught herself to program for virtual reality excited by the possibility to engage people in her corner of the world about their local environments.
“Climate change is often spoken about on a global level that can feel so far away and disconnected,” Tyski said. “Bringing it to the Adirondacks, and specifically the VIC, can help people better connect with the subject.” People often emerge with an appreciation for the magnitude of environmental transformation that’s bound to come.
During her research, she collected comments from students at Paul Smith’s who anonymously shared:
“I didn’t know a few degrees could put that much change into an environment.” And, “It makes me feel sad that future generations won’t experience the coniferous, dense forest that the VIC has now,” they wrote. And that after the 2-degrees of warming, “It’s not the VIC anymore.”
Many scientists have speculated what this region may look like at various degrees of warming including how species are likely to be impacted. Tyski based her visuals off of Jerry Jenkin’s descriptions in “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.
In Jenkin’s best-case scenario, under varying temperature analyses, by the year 2100 the Adirondacks ends up with a climate similar to what West Virginia has today. At a more extreme increase in warming, the prediction looks more like that of Georgia.
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 woodcock, her favorite bird.)
By making various outcomes for the environment feel immediate and visceral, she hopes to add oomph for those already engaged in building a more sustainable world, she said.
“Being able to look at something that’s a half-mile that way and seeing how drastically it seemed to change,” a student told Tyski. “It puts everything very sharply back into perspective on why changing this course, the course of where we’re headed, matters.”