Virtual Reality Opens Eyes to Damaging Effects of Global Warming to the Ocean

By: Madeline Butler ’24

Erika Woolsey is presenting people with the damage being done to coral reefs by global warming through virtual reality. Her work provides a close view of the result of other man-made issues like pollution and overfishing.

Woolsey is a coral reef scientist and the leader of Hydrous, a non-profit that is dedicated to improving public understanding of ocean science. She uses her abilities as a marine biologist, divemaster and virtual reality filmmaker to create virtual experiences that teach people about damaged coral reefs.

 “Intended to be watched with a VR headset, viewers join Woolsey for a nine-minute guided virtual dive on the coral reefs off the western Pacific Island of Palau, immersed in a 360-degree underwater view,” according to CNN.

This virtual tour is an attempt by the Hydrous team to recreate their award-winning film “Immerse.” The goal of the project is to make people feel more connected to the ocean and problems like damaged coral reefs.

“As soon as people take off that headset and look me in the eye, they want to tell me a story about their ocean experience,” Woolsey said. “It’s that human connection to our ocean that will solve our ocean problems.”

Global warming is detrimental to the health of coral reefs in many ways. Warming oceans, rising sea levels, changes in storm patterns and precipitation, altered ocean currents and ocean acidification are all issues that plague our coral reefs.

“Climate change is the greatest global threat to coral reef ecosystems. Scientific evidence now clearly indicates that the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean are warming, and that these changes are primarily due to greenhouse gases derived from human activities,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since many of the issues are man-made, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the damage to coral reefs. Reducing the number of pollutants, like household chemicals and pesticides, that end up in water runoff, purchasing energy efficient appliances and volunteering for beach clean ups are all ways to limit coral reef destruction.

Overfishing is also a major threat to coral reefs. While fishing has many economic, social and cultural benefits, too much fishing can negatively affect ocean habitats. Coral reef fisheries, though they are most often relatively small, can have disproportionately large impacts on the ecosystem if they are not conducted in a sustainable way.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Rapid human population growth, increased demand, use of more efficient fishery technologies, and inadequate management and enforcement have led to the depletion of key reef species and habitat damage in many locations.”

There are steps that can be taken to reduce overfishing. Making sustainable seafood choices is something anyone can do, even if they do not live directly on the coast. When fishing, it is important to consider what fish you actually plan to eat and release fish back into their habitat if you do not plan on eating it.

Erika Woolsey’s virtual reality project aims to create what her team calls “universal ocean empathy.” The more people like Woolsey who open the public eye to issues like coral reef destruction, the more opportunities there are to understand the importance of making lifestyle changes that benefit not only coral reefs, but also the planet and its oceans as a whole.

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