ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Summer 2009

Virtual NOAA

Many visitors to NOAA in Second Life had never heard of the agency, but hope NOAA’s new media efforts will expand

Several factors associated with CO2 emissions.Several factors associated with CO2 emissions.

Several factors associated with CO2 emissions, presented on a logarithmic scale. Anthropogenic CO2 refers to CO2 levels above pre-industrial. Adapted from Hofmann et al. 2008.

Things to Do on NOAA’s Second Life Islands

  • Float on a weather balloon
  • Fish for Alaska king crab
  • Soar through a hurricane
  • Explore underwater caves
  • Clean up an oil spill
  • Walk through real-time weather
  • Trigger a tsunami
  • Watch Science On a Sphere
  • Traverse a glacier
  • Map the ocean floorwith

A powerful tsunami kills no one in the online virtual world Second Life, and the house blown apart by waves reassembles itself within seconds. Glaciers that melt and flow into the ocean are quickly sculpted back into cold, hard ice. But visitors to NOAA’s Second Life exhibits still get the point: Climate change is reshaping the planet. Tsunamis are deadly strong.

“You can read about a tsunami in a textbook or you can experience one in a virtual world,” ERSL’s Eric Hackathorn, told Linden Lab (the creator of Second Life) this spring. “I believe that experience has a greater impact.”

Hackathorn, part of ESRL’s Global Systems Division, serves as NOAA’s Virtual Worlds Program Manager and has directed the creation of NOAA islands. Avatars (people’s virtual representations online) who visit NOAA’s islands can ride into a hurricane on a research airplane, or walk across a weather map of the United States, experiencing current conditions—rain in eastern Oregon, scattered clouds over Maryland’s beaches.

Linden Lab featured NOAA’s Second Life presence in a case study this spring, concluding “NOAA has found ways to reach new audiences in profound and meaningful ways.” Forty percent of visitors to NOAA’s Second Life islands had never heard of the agency before, Linden Lab reported.

NOAA’s activities in virtual worlds address a particular challenge in communicating climate change—those changes happen too slowly for many people to perceive them as threatening. When a virtual glacier crumbles before visitors’ eyes, or a coral reef’s brilliant, digital colors fade to gray in seconds, the effects of climate change can become strangely more real, Hackathorn said.

NOAA began incorporating Second Life into communication and educational programs in 2006 to reach new audiences and raise general brand awareness at home and abroad. NOAA’s vision for the virtual world is the same as in reality: To create an informed society that understands the role of the ocean, coasts, and atmosphere in the global ecosystem to make the best social and economic decisions.

The Linden Lab report also found that NOAA’s efforts in Second Life are considered “pioneering,” so much so that Hackathorn and his supervisor William Bendel, also in the Global Systems Division, are agencies seeking to develop a presence in the virtual world.

On the Web

Second Life NOAA Case Study