Anna Krecic and her son Eoghan Alexander, 4, take an Owlized virtual reality tour of what sea level rise will look like at Coyote Point as part of the new ‘Look Ahead �" San Mateo' installation.
Comprehending climate change can be hard. So in the spirit of “seeing is believing,” virtual reality is being used to highlight the effects of sea level rise along the San Mateo County Bayfront.
Environmental activists, local officials and creators of the Owlized virtual reality viewfinder gathered Thursday at Coyote Point to launch the “Look Ahead — San Mateo” project.
This temporary installation uses technology to engage the community and raise awareness on how climate change is predicted to impact the region — an area known as ground zero for sea level rise.
Modeled after traditional tower viewers, or binoculars typically set up at scenic lookouts, two “Owls” now sit along the Coyote Point promenade overlooking the Bay.
Users can swivel the Owl as they’re first shown an image of what flooding looks like today, before seeing how where they’re standing will appear after the seas rise in the coming decades. Finally, they’re shown how a shoreline rejuvenation and protection project currently underway will help the county adapt.
“‘Seeing is believing’ is really critical. One of the things we’re working against, is the ‘not here, not now,’” said Cara Pike, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Access. “This is the missing link. We have to use this for climate education because we can show people what’s happening right now. … The first person experience is what’s so critical in this.”
Over the five-month installation, thousands of people are anticipated to interact with the Owls as they walk along the recreational trail that could one day be underwater if nothing is done.
“The Owl lets us look into the future,” said county Supervisor Dave Pine, a founding member of the Sea Change San Mateo County initiative. “The water will rise. There’s no question about that. Of all the counties, we have the most at risk in terms of our property value and our development patterns, as we know, have really pushed into the Bay. So we cannot avoid the challenges of sea level rise.”
Local representatives have been extremely active in planning for a predicted 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century and are in the midst of finalizing a vulnerability assessment that notes nearly $24 billion in assets and over 100,000 people are in risk zones. It’s one of the few counties in the state to be bordered by both a Bayfront and the ocean, prompting elected representatives at all levels to form the local Sea Change initiative.
The draft assessment is anticipated for release around October, and the collaborative effort will eventually include adaptive planning strategies, said Hilary Papendick, climate resiliency specialist with the county’s Office of Sustainability.
But instead of just frightening the public with stark figures about sea level rise and what’s at risk, Papendick said it’s more effective for people to feel empowered that they can have an impact.
“One thing we’ve learned, is climate change can be really overwhelming and daunting,” Papendick said. “Showing people the impacts, along with the solutions, is much more effective in engaging people with this issue.”
The Owls were strategically placed where the county’s Parks Department is striving to undertake a $6 million promenade rejuvenation project. Having recently completed improvements to the western promenade, the eastern promenade project involves enhancing nearly 1,000 feet of shoreline by enlarging and sloping the beach, which serves as a horizontal levee. It also includes relocating the parking lot then removing and replanting nearly 120 new trees on the most eastern tip of San Mateo.
As part of the Look Ahead virtual reality tour, users will see how the promenade project not only helps to protect against sea level rise, but also promotes recreational resources at Coyote Point.
During Thursday’s launch celebration, 10-year-old Lillian Alexander gave an Owl a spin. Alexander, who’s home-schooled, is currently working on a film project with other kids about the ocean. Even at a young age, she already has a passion for how legislation can be used to help protect the environment.
“It was surprising that sea level rise is going to have such an effect on the land,” Alexander said before explaining why she loves the ocean. “It’s honestly kind of like the blue heart of our planet.”
Children like Lillian and the thousands who are expected to interact with the equipment are the exact type of audience the installation is meant to attract and educate.
The local installation follows a shorter program piloted in Marin County and precedes a plan to use the Owls in San Francisco, Pike said.
Partnering on the project is Climate Access, the county, the California Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco-based Owlized founded by CEO Aaron Selverston, along with others. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Region IX funded the installation.
Owl users will also have a chance to take a short poll and even leave comments by recording their thoughts after using the Owls. The public input may be used in Climate Access’ communication tool kit that will be distributed to public and community agencies, as well as incorporated into the county’s Sea Change San Mateo County program, Pike said.
“We’re trying to really move the needle on this issue and get people engaged,” Pike said, recalling some of the comments children left during the Marin County exhibition. “You could hear the emotion. … Kids were saying, ‘oh my god. That’s my house. What are we going to do?’”
The Look Ahead — San Mateo Owls will be at the Coyote Point Recreation Center near the board sports rental facility through December. Visit seachangesmc.com for more information.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106