A permafrost slump as seen in virtual reality. Image: Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk
A virtual experience allows users to witness the transformative impacts of a warming climate on Qikiqtaruk, an island off the Yukon coast in the Beaufort Sea.
The project, called “Qikiqtaruk: Arctic at Risk,” was put together by a team of researchers, park rangers, educators and virtual reality creators.
It visualizes how the island has changed over time due to permafrost thaw, vegetation change, coastal erosion and flooding, and sets out how the area may look in the future.
Qikiqtaruk, also called Herschel Island, lies in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and is home to a Yukon territorial park. The island has long been an important hunting and fishing area for the Inuvialuit and their ancestors. It was also historically used by whalers.
Like many places in the Arctic, Qikiqtaruk is rapidly warming.
Richard Gordon, senior park ranger at Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park and a collaborator on the VR project, has worked on the island for the past 25 years.
“A lot has changed during my presence there,” he said.
“The erosion affected the island in one way or the other. The warmth and the movement of the ice affected the seabirds one way or the other. The sediments that are coming off from the erosion of the land affect the fish in the area,” he said.
The rate at which land is being lost to erosion and slumping has also been ramping up in recent years, according to Gordon.
Researchers have been documenting climate-induced changes on the island and publishing their findings in scientific papers. Isla Myers-Smith, a scientist at the University of Edinburgh and the University of British Columbia, has been studying changes in plant communities since 2008, finding that shrubs, grasses and sedges on Qikiqtaruk are increasing.
But reading a paper about these changes doesn’t hit home like seeing the transformation first-hand.
“Those scientific papers are pretty dry, and they don’t necessarily engage broader audiences outside of the scientific community,” Myers-Smith said.
“Part of the idea with the VR project was to think about how we can present the scientific findings from the island in a different and more engaging way with people here in the North and people around the world.”
Both Myers-Smith and Jeffrey Kerby, an ecologist, photographer and postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark, study environmental changes on Qikiqtaruk by taking thousands of images with drones.
These images can then be fed into a computer and turned into high-resolution, 3D models that capture deviations in the landscape, Kerby said.
The team had planned a 2020 field season but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they had to cancel. Stuck at home, they were left pondering how they could use their existing data in new ways.
Kerby said the group’s thinking at the time was: “What if we could go into our data and then use it to more effectively talk about either some of the science or just what it’s like to work on an island that is very important, for a lot of reasons, but that not a lot of people get to visit?”
Teaming up with immersive content creator Martin Edström from IVAR Studios, they used their 3D models as a skeleton and layered on animations to create realistic scenes. Drawing on old photographs, people’s descriptions, research and their own experiences, they recreated what the area looked like in the past and projected what it might look like in the future.
In its current form, the VR project takes viewers to several different locations on the island. At one point, viewers are standing at the edge of a permafrost thaw slump, in a spot that no longer exists. Later, they watch as shrubs overtake the tundra, and remains of historic settlements get inundated by floodwater.
Myers-Smith and Gordon narrate the experience, while Arctic sounds play in the background – chirping birds, buzzing mosquitoes and the drips, cracks and plops of thawing permafrost.
Kerby and his colleagues in Denmark are also in the early stages of trying to add scent to the project to find out if it changes people’s experience.
Working with a perfume maker, they tried to mimic the smell of thawing permafrost, which Kerby described as a sort-of rotting smell, “mildly sulphury but kind of nice.” Ultimately, Kerby said, the perfumes didn’t quite hit the mark, so the team decided to use geosmin, a compound responsible for the smell of wet soil after rain.
While initial results from the smell tests are inconclusive, Kerby said the group is eager to continue exploring.
Education and empathy
The version of the VR project shared in the NWT so far doesn’t include scents. Nonetheless, Gordon said it captures the reality of Qikiqtaruk during the summer months.
“It’s so real,” he said, reflecting on his reaction when he first saw the VR project two years ago. “It was amazing just to see what they could do with technology today.”
By showing the general public what’s happening in the Arctic, Myers-Smith said the hope is that the experience will spur climate action.
From the inception of the project, funded in part by the National Geographic Society and Meridian Treehouse, the team wanted it to be useful and relevant to people in the North, too. Because travelling to Qikiqtaruk is so challenging and expensive, Myers-Smith said, few people are able to visit regularly and witness the changes unfolding.
Working with the Aurora Research Institute, the team has shared the VR project at events, meetings and in classrooms in Inuvik, Aklavik and Norman Wells.
A few weeks ago, Grade 9 students in Aklavik got to test the virtual experience, Myers-Smith said, and people in Inuvik will have a chance to try it at an event later this month.
“We’ve had a lot of engagement, and people seem quite excited to try it,” Kerby said.
The project’s creators were recently recognized for their work using immersive technology to visualize climate impacts. The award was announced last month at the Augmented World Expo, a virtual and augmented reality event.
The group is now working to finalize the project, with a view to releasing it within a year. Kerby said different versions will be produced for different uses and, ideally, all of them will be playable over the web, either on a browser inside a VR headset or on a computer or mobile device.
Ultimately, the team said, the experience could be used in classrooms and science museums, or shared at community meetings or with tourists.
“It just opens everybody’s wonders as to, ‘Wow, is this really happening in our backyard?’” Gordon said. “Yes, it is.”