Firestorm. Storm surge. EF-5 tornado. If you pay attention to the weather, these are undoubtably terms you’ve heard, along with dire warnings from meteorologists to heed any and all evacuation warnings.
But the Weather Channel has upped the ante by creating what it calls mixed reality segments that drive home the risks in a way looking at maps just can’t. While the effort launched in 2015, these videos have exploded from weather Twitter into the general populace in recent months. A storm surge video on Hurricane Florence garnered widespread media coverage and netted more than 2.3 million viewers on YouTube.
The videos aren’t just a potent demonstration of the threat natural disasters pose. By weaving in climate change messaging, they drive home the risks of a warming world.
The Weather Channel’s latest foray into mixed reality looks at wildfires. On-air meteorologist Stephanie Abrams stands amid a forest scene, describing how climate change has made fire conditions more explosive in the U.S. After laying out the weather conditions and sighting an errant ember, the forest lights up around her.
The camera zooms out to capture the flames racing up the hillside and into a town on the other side. Along the way, facts appear like VH1's Pop Up Video. Abrams closes it out under a glowing red sky by noting that climate change means “scenes like this could become a frightening new reality.”
In era of social media, images of burnt out homes and forests and neighborhoods washed away by storm surge abound. But they inevitably lack context and amid the cacophony of daily life, their warnings can slip from memory. As someone who has worked in the climate and weather for a decade, the videos take concepts I understand academically and make them feel incredibly visceral. I imagine the impact is even more powerful for people haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about weather or climate.
“It brings home the the risk of life and property more than anything I can think of,” Greg Postel, an on-air meteorologist with the Weather Channel who has appeared in a mixed reality segment on storm surge, told Earther.
To create the segments, the Weather Channel uses a green screen and special cameras coupled with graphics created by Unreal Engine, a graphics package behind Fortnite and other video games. Right now, the company is working with a Norwegian production crew called Future Group, and it takes about 3-4 weeks to produce a 1-3 minute video, according to Michael Potts, the Weather Channel’s vice president of design. He told Earther they’ll ultimately be bringing production in-house and hope to be able to turn these out at a much faster clip.
The Weather Channel can also repurpose visuals they’ve already got down pat—the storm surge scenario Postel starred in was modified during Florence and Michael, for instance. After showing National Hurricane Center inundation maps, both videos zoom out to show what the projected storm surge looked like in mixed reality. With Postel standing within a cone of dry studio like a modern day Moses, the waters rise around him, underscoring why you should evacuate if you have the means.
“I had all sorts of dreams maybe that someday we could have three dimensional animations of weather,” Postel said of when he got his start in meteorology more than two decades ago. “We’re getting toward that.”
This winter offers a chance for new uses of mixed reality, from burying meteorologists in digital lake-effect snow to standing amidst the slurry of saltwater and ice that accompanies nor’easters. But beyond showing the danger of various types of weather, mixed reality conveys the gravity of climate change. It’s one thing for me to write that wildfire season is more than three months longer than it was in the 1970s or that storm surge is lifted by rising seas. It’s another to layer that clear cut science within an immersive environment.
I don’t mean to get all hopeful, but it feels like the recent United Nations report warning the world has a decade to get control of the future climate coupled with the increasingly obvious impacts could be a turning point in how the public and media treat climate change (jury’s still out on elected Republican officials). The Weather Channel’s augmented reality is yet another way to drive home just how dramatic the choices are.