Second Life’s NOAA Weather Island: “A Cool Place To Experience A Tsunami Without Being Killed”

January 21st, 2009  |  Published in SL Entrepreneur Magazine, SLENTRE.COM Magazine Feature Articles  |  1 Comment

By CompE Lockwood, aka Emmett Burnett

“You’ve got to try the “Tsunami thingy,” an excited Linn said, explaining the virtual killer wave. “It is amazing.” Perhaps “thingy” isn’t the first descriptive noun the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to use when referring to an attraction on their weather island. But they gladly accept “amazing,” and with good reason. It is.

Linn from real world Texas is one of the thousands of avatars visiting Second Life’s NOAA Virtual Island in SciLands. You know NOAA as the government’s meteorological people – the folks who make TV weathermen look good. Mark Twain once said, “every one talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.” Second Life and NOAA have teamed up to prove the Missouri author wrong. Because here one doesn’t just talk about the weather; one experiences it. But first, back to the trouble at sea. Warning sirens blast, telling coastal residents to seek shelter inland. The sea churns ominously. At first all seems calm. Is this a false alarm? “Just watch the water,” Riff, a frequent NOAA SL visitor from real world Delaware, explains. “Oh, and keep your eye on the beach houses – they won’t be here long.”

As if on cue, the ocean is sucked into the horizon, leaving bare beach where foaming brine used to be. And then it happens. A surging water wall roars inland engulfing me, Riff and the cyber world in washed destruction. When the sea subsides, rubble floats where homes used to be. I now know what life was like on the beaches of Indonesia on December 26, 2004. And that’s the idea.

“It’s really simple,” Eric Hackathorn, Program Manager for NOAA World Programs, Boulder, Colorado states. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” You can read about weather patterns or you can become immersed in them. SL provides the immersion. In April 2006, the U.S. Government launched its virtual headquarters; “an island where visitors experience the above mentioned Tsunami, fly with hurricane hunters, explore glaciers, dive in coral reefs and other feats of nature.” Oh, and they give weather forecasts too.

NOAA's real time weather map in Second Life

(NOAA’s real time weather map in Second Life)

“But,” you ask, “can’t one obtain the weather report on TV, radio, internet? Or simply look out the window?” Sure, any meteorologist can tell you if it’s fair or partly cloudy. But in Second Life NOAA, you don’t just read the forecast – you are a part of it. “Our goal is education and outreach,” Hackathorn said. “We [NOAA] looked at about 250 virtual world platforms. Second Life was the one chosen because of its technical capabilities, huge potential audience and its abilities to offer visualization cheaply.” Visualization, along with group interaction abilities, is what separates SL from a website (NOAA has an internet presence too). “The web is good, but basically it is for one person use, offering links and downloads,” he explained. “Not SL; this is hands on. I like to compare our site to a virtual Epcot or Disneyworld.” Except this isn’t Mickey Mouse; you learn and have fun doing it.

Map of the sections on the NOAA Second Life Island
















(Map of the sections on the NOAA Second Life Island)

And like Disney World, virtual NOAA is divided into sections. There is the hurricane ride, Real Time Weather Map, Meeting Hall, Tsunami, Science in a Sphere, Sea Life, Glacier, and Weather Balloon. Each is interactive. I started with a hike through the glacier. I’ve walked on a real glacier and except for the real life cold feet this one is almost the equivalent. On one side of the ice mountain is NOAA; on the other is Alaska.

Exploring the coral reefs on NOAA's island in Second Life

(Exploring the coral reefs on NOAA’s island in Second Life)

NOAA Visitors may board a submarine for a coral reef tour or hitch a ride on a weather balloon. There are experiments, hands on activities and provisions for lectures and discussions. This place would make a perfect classroom and it is.

“Students from grade school to college level visit at least weekly,” said Hackathorn. “Their teachers use us in their lesson plans and/or we give guided tours and presentations.” The NOAA representative went on to say that academic research has revealed that virtual worlds are important to human reception. The brain remembers virtual experiences similar to real ones – providing a powerful learning tool.

The average number of visitors to SL NOAA is running in the thousands a month. “That figure is not as high as traditional website visits, but people coming here stay longer,” said the manager. And they like what they see. According to Hackathorn, NOAA polling shows 95 percent of visitors want the site to continue and expand.

But NOAA is more than a classroom tool with cool cyber simulators. The day may come when it saves lives. Nestled in the heart of this electronic weather wonderland are conference centers, weather maps and monitors which may provide real time data. “Civil Defense, meteorologists, law enforcement, and other experts could gather here as a hurricane approaches,” said Hackathorn. “Real time satellite feeds, timely weather data and forecasts could be presented to the group. Joint decisions can be made on the spot by people from around the world while attending the same virtual conference.”

NOAA on SL was the brainchild of Hackathorn. “I started the project on my own time, building a few buildings and experimenting with content.” “Then it turned into a grassroots effort. We showed our work to management who finally accepted it and approved the launch.”

Hackathorn is not only a creator but one of the site’s biggest supporters. “There are so many possibilities,” he noted. “Academic and scientific research, idea exchange, school projects – I am very optimistic about the future.”

One project for the New Year involves the blending of real life sources such as Google Earth with Second Life. “It combines the single user capabilities of the web with the community use of SL,” Hackathorn said. “Friends can gather and explore data together.” In the meantime, it is a cool place to experience a tsunami without being killed.

NOAA’s Weather Island Location in Second Life:


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