Tree-lined streets turn to rivers in the Charleston, South Carolina, of the future. Street lights hang suspended just feet from the water’s surface as a meteorologist perched on a rooftop explains that this is the view we might see in the year 2100 if climate change continues at its current pace.
The scene is from The Weather Channel’s latest mixed reality segment, which connects the flooding of tomorrow to the melting glaciers and sea level rise of today. It marks a slight deviation from its ongoing campaign to put its meteorologists in the middle of virtual but hyperrealistic extreme weather events.
Some of these have touched on climate change and its role in worsening the wildfires that scorch the West Coast every year or the thinning ice coating the surface of lakes. But this is the first to focus entirely on the effects of climate change, according to Matthew Sitkowski, executive weather producer at The Weather Channel. “This time, we decided to really wrap our hands around climate change and make it the star,” he says.
“They earn our full attention.”
To make these segments, The Weather Channel uses a popular video game development platform called the Unreal Engine to adjust the graphics in real time. Using camera tracking technology, the production team puts the meteorologist in the scene. The result is a vivid, near-realistic cinematic scene that captures the viewer’s attention for the same reasons that video games do, says Edward Maibach, the director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, who wasn’t involved in producing this clip. “By engaging our senses of sight and sounds — and our tendency to focus on things that move — they earn our full attention, and are experienced more like real lived experience than like book learning,” he says in an email to The Verge.
In this particular segment, after previewing Charleston and its future floods, the meteorologist visits the waterlogged Norfolk, Virginia, of today. In Norfolk, the sea level has risen 1.4 feet since 1927 as global temperatures climb. “Just a steady onshore breeze and a high tide can lead to flooded roads and homes,” the meteorologist says in the clip.
The video connects the rising seas in Norfolk to the glaciers that are melting in the Arctic, which is warming at an alarming rate. Warming global temperatures can cause sea levels to rise in a few different ways: warm water expands, and thawing land ice trickles into the ocean, causing water levels to rise. As the meteorologist explains that 25 miles of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland have disappeared since 1851, a massive wall of ice crumbles behind her. “It’s happening now. Temperatures are rising. Ice is melting, and sea levels are accelerating upwards,” the meteorologist says. “And it’s going to get worse within our lifetime.”
“This is something we need to be talking about.”
That’s the message that Sitkowski wanted the video to communicate. “What’s happening up in the Arctic matters for you now,” he says. The Weather Channel’s team has been working to mention climate change during live programming. “People come to us to get the forecasts, especially if there’s a big extreme weather event, but these are all very slowly and gradually being modified by climate change,” he says. By showing what things might look like in the future and how they’ve already changed over time, Sitkowski hopes it leaves people with this message: “This is something serious. This is something we need to be talking about.”