Rise Up with USGS & Surfrider

Visualizing the real effects of sea level rise.
Virtual Reality

Immersive Data Visualization

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) built a Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS) to calculate how rising sea levels, tides, waves, and storm conditions will impact our coastlines during the next century. To illustrate the effects of future sea level rise, the USGS engaged Invisible Thread to visualize the science.

Impactful storytelling

Climate change is one of the most serious issues of our time and will affect the entire global population, especially people and cities located along the world’s coasts. The physical effects of rising seas are known, but communicating the potential impact and damage is difficult to convey in a way that is accurate, demonstrable, and memorable. USGS awarded the visualization project to Invisible Thread and provided the USGS CoSMoS data.

Our team leveraged decades of experience in visual effects for feature films, cutting-edge technology skills, and cinematic storytelling ability to present large, complex datasets in a visualization that engages people to help them understand the human cost of climate change.

USGS chose Capitola Beach, CA—an iconic beach town that is under threat from rising seas. We started with LIDAR and photogrammetry scans of the location, and then combined them with 360 video taken on the beach. The 3D data was calibrated in real-world units and correlated with USGS CoSMoS information to model where the ocean will impact the coastline and structures at Capitola Beach.

an authentic scenario

We evaluated and selected which conditions of the USGS dataset to illustrate. The goal was to pick likely conditions to ensure relevancy and authenticity for the viewer rather than cherry-pick extreme examples. The new USGS CoSMoS model also highlighted the impact of dynamic conditions such as storm surges and king tides. To tell the whole story it was important to show the combination of sea level rise due to climate change in conjunction with storm conditions to effectively demonstrate the dramatic impact on the coasts.

visual effects

To execute on this visualization, we used fluid implicit particle simulations and ocean spectrums guided by USGS data to create the realistic water depictions. Dozens of different scenarios were run through the 3D model and ultimately a progression of sea levels and conditions emerged which told the story.

actual immersion

Sea level rise, small at first, then combined with storm conditions from mild to severe, dramatically illustrates the damage caused by the conditions. Ultimately the viewer is submerged. The literal and figurative impact of this moment is profound, and drives home the urgent need for action.

personal connection

Most people are aware of sea-level rise and climate change and about sixty percent of the population is concerned about it. The direct impact of these changes is hard to comprehend and extremely difficult to communicate. Without expertise and experience in data interpretation it is virtually impossible to translate the science into the intuition and emotion on a personal level. ‘How will rising sea levels affect me, my children and grandchildren?’ remain theoretical rather than experiential questions. 

The objective of this visualization is twofold: one, accurately portray the scientific basis of sea level rise and its damage to our environment; and two, to connect emotionally and engage viewers with their hearts as well as their heads. This was achieved by bringing the scientific data into a descriptive and personal data story.

2020 Impact Prediction. 2023 Reality.

In February 2023, our visualization of the predicted impact of sea level rise at Capitola Beach became a reality.

Visual storytelling is critical in helping people understand the what, why, and how behind complex information, such as the need for climate resiliency and adaptation measures for urban planning and policy development. And when you layer in the element of immersion, such as augmented reality or 360º video, the level of audience engagement increases exponentially. People remember and often share an immersive experience far beyond traditional forms of media.

See the experience in action

To feel the effects of sea level rise, be sure to see the immersive 360 experience on Surfrider Foundation’s YouTube page.

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