On Nov. 16, as Boston’s coast reached its highest tide of the year at around 12.5 feet, graduate student Emily Duwan stood ready at downtown Boston’s Long Wharf with her tripod and GigaPan robotic camera.
As Long Wharf locals and visitors waded through the waters of the so-called “King Tide,” the GigaPan captured more than 400 images to create a 360-degree view of the waterfront. Duwan, a student in Brian Helmuth’s lab at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, is completing a thesis project to test the efficacy of these types of “virtual tours” in classrooms, to see if the use of virtual reality in education leads to enhanced excitement and interest in climate change.
“The increase in technology has really changed how we can communicate science,” Duwan said. “Anyone that’s in the middle of the country that hasn’t even seen an ocean before can now be immersed in that environment with new technology.”
Duwan is part of a growing movement to develop effective tools to communicate the dangers of global climate change to the public. According to a March 2016 study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, nearly 30 percent of Americans remain disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive of future climate impacts. The severity of climate projections has increased over time, but the trend of skepticism has persisted. To combat that, journalists are exploring new and creative ways to communicate climate change.
Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, has conducted extensive research on what is referred to as “the science of science communication.” He says one of the major challenges is communicating the realities of climate change without scaring people away.
“One of the downsides of climate journalism is that there is a tendency to overemphasize the most catastrophic outcomes and the most dangerous risks,” Nisbet said. “It’s often important to focus on some of these more severe risks, but you also have to provide information about what … people can do to address that risk.”
It’s also important to give people a first-hand experience of what’s happening in the affected environments. Duwan’s virtual tours are one way to do that. She hopes the technology can be used to stimulate widespread action on climate change, especially when it comes to localized issues like sea level rise.
“I’m hoping that people that don’t get the chance to come out here and see what the King Tides look like, they’ll have a better idea of what the waterfront will look like with future sea-level rise [after watching the virtual tour],” Duwan said.
Whether the King Tides, which occur annually as a result of the fluctuating lunar cycle, are seen virtually or in person, they’re a dramatic sight. Many observers simply saw the tide as a unique opportunity to wade through the water washing out of the Boston Harbor, but others found it a stark confrontation with the reality of climate change.
Marc Silverman, who works for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), spent his lunch break observing the King Tides alongside colleague Paul Hunter, director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
“I live about a quarter mile from the water,” Silverman said. “Soon, [my home] will be waterfront property.”
Hunter emphasized the need for greater visual representation of climate change impacts.
“It’s got to be pictorial,” he said. “There’s a lot of projections that people can do in terms of showing what the impact will be on local businesses and properties.”
Julie Wormser, vice president for policy at Boston Harbor Now, a nonprofit organization dedicated to planning the future of Boston’s waterfront, says the King Tides are an important way to raise awareness of the changes that are occurring throughout the city, especially since climate change is not always top of mind for many Boston citizens.
“There are things we need to be doing to engage people,” Wormser said. “You want to start from a place where people believe it.”
She says that helping the public understand Boston’s future is all about the intersection between “really good science, hope, and beauty.”
During the first King Tide in October, Boston Harbor Now invited visitors to share photos of their experience on social media, then compiled those photos at a website called MyCoast. It’s a small step, but will hopefully make a difference in communicating how Boston will be affected by sea level rise in the future.
“We’re trying to get people to think creatively,” Wormser said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Here are things you can do that are people scale.’”
Though there was no social media push for the King Tide in November, that didn’t stop observers from taking time out of their workday to see the tides and “engaging in ‘whoa,’” as Wormser describes it.
“It’s a pretty unique experience,” said David Dudek, information technology specialist for Jobs for the Future. “How often do you get to step in the Boston Harbor without leaving the ground?”
Silverman says the tides are indicative of greater changes to come. “I think the past year has proven that the weather patterns in this country and the whole world are changing drastically, and people haven’t seen the worst yet,” he said.
Successful climate change communication involves the intersection of a number of people and groups, including citizen journalists who post photos on social networking sites. Still, it starts with the media.
“We rely on journalists as professional news-gatherers to use their training and experience to tell us what’s important and to tell us what are the pressing problems that we face,” Nisbet said.
Danielle Fino, manager of marketing and digital communications at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), says that’s become an even greater challenge as the ways people receive their news are increasingly divided.
“There’s a lot of content out there about climate change,” Fino said. “On social media, we’re being channeled and siloed even more. We’re not even seeing the other information.”
As part of the WHOI communications team, Fino works to develop strategies to share up-and-coming marine science research while also increasing ocean awareness and literacy. She says photo and video demonstrations are often more effective than text within the “barrage of content” that permeates the web today.
“Visuals are so key because that’s the easiest way for people to notice something, especially if it’s emotional,” she said. “People will relate and engage with something that they have an emotional connection with,” and then hopefully will promote it on their own social media site.
Fino says that awareness and appreciation for the ocean have increased, but that promotion of content is now just as important as the quality of the content itself.
“There’s a greater awareness of the ocean and the threats it faces than ever before,” she said. The question is, “How do you make sea level rise enough of a part of somebody’s interests that they actually want to share content about it and tell other people about it?”
It’s an enormous challenge that will only increase for the next generation of communicators. Passionate young people like Duwan hold the key to telling the story of climate change in a way that makes sense for people, hopefully leading to future climate action.
“If we’re able to see what’s going to be impacted now, we can kind of prepare for that,” Duwan said. “Hopefully with the use of new technology, we can have a broader impact and reach more people about different environmental problems.”
This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.