6 feet of sea level rise? This virtual reality demo shows how it might look in Santa Monica

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A new virtual reality experience on the Santa Monica Pier shows people what a century of climate change is likely to do to the coastline along Santa Monica Beach.

A pair of binocular viewfinders unveiled Wednesday give a 360 degree view of the iconic beach and show what it's predicted to look like as sea levels rise by six feet and storms flood the area.

A VR image depicting a storm surge after sea levels rise by six feet. This could happen by the end of the century as the effects of climate change take hold.
A VR image depicting a storm surge after sea levels rise by six feet. This could happen by the end of the century as the effects of climate change take hold. USC Sea Grant

The project — managed by the US Geological Survey, USC and the City of Santa Monica — hopes to make the seemingly far-off effects of global warming feel more immediate.

"This is a unique way of being able to see what our true vulnerabilities will be looking into the future," explained Juliette Finzi Hart with USGS.

Visitors to the instillation look through the viewfinders and first see the beach as it is today. Subsequent images show how the beach is expected to change as the effects of man-made climate change take hold.

By some estimates, sea levels off the California coast could rise by six feet over the next century, Finzi Hart said.

Santa Monica Sea Level Rise 360 VR

The demonstration also shows how storm surges could push tides even farther inland. It ends by showing a potential way to mitigate coastal flooding.

Along the way, the program asks the viewer a series of questions to help city planners and researchers gain insight on how the public feels about this issue.

The project cost around $50,000 and the bulk of it was paid for by the City of Santa Monica itself, according to Finzi Hart.

"We want people to get an idea of what they face going forward so wise decision-making can take place," said Phyllis Grifman with the Sea Grant program at USC.

A diagram showing potential sea level rise.
A diagram showing potential sea level rise. Climate Education Partners (and adapted by the city of Santa Monica)

Grifman said the city is interested in educating people on the challenges posed by sea level rise, so the public will be more engaged when it comes time to develop potentially costly and difficult solutions.

This technology runs on a VR platform called "The Owl." Similar displays have been used in Marin and San Mateo counties. It’s free and will be up through December.

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