Graphs and reports about climate change can be hard to relate to, but a stroll in the woods is not.

So to help people connect with how forests may change as the climate warms, researchers at Penn State are experimenting with virtual reality.

“To ground a conversation, and then potential decision-making, in something that’s graspable, that’s visceral,” Alex Klippel says.

Klippel and his team developed a prototype of a VR forest, modeled after a forest in northern Wisconsin.

Wearing a VR headset, users can explore the woods. They can look up at the sky, down at the sun-dappled ground, and even hear birds chirping.

“We can create a visceral, embodied experience,” Klippel says.

The technology incorporates detailed data about the tree and plant species in the forest, and projections of how warmer, drier conditions could affect them. For example, some species such as balsam fir and white ash may decrease in number or become stunted.

Users can zoom in to learn about each species. And they can toggle between how the forest looks today, and how it may look decades in the future.

Immersive experiences can convey something more tangible than data alone. So Klippel hopes they can get people thinking about the effects of climate change in a whole new way.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media