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NOAA 3D Earth in virtual world

Soar through a hurricane on the wing of a research aircraft, rise gently through the atmosphere atop a weather ball...

Soar through a hurricane on the wing of a research aircraft, rise gently through the atmosphere atop a weather balloon, or search for a hidden underwater cave on a side trip from a NOAA submersible. These and other virtual adventures are attracting large numbers of “avatars,” or virtual selves, to one of the first government-sponsored, Earth-science “islands” in the rapidly growing online world of Second Life. NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab (ESRL) developed the site for users to have the experiences in the virtual world they may not have in the physical world, and learn about the cutting-edge science that NOAA conducts regularly. Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents, according to creator Linden Lab, of San Francisco. The Web site claims over five million inhabitants from around the globe, and the population is growing explosively. Many are new to NOAA science. Of the first few thousand visitors, 35 percent said they had not previously heard of the U.S. agency. More information on how to access this virtual world is available at NOAA’s Second Life website:

“We’re experimenting with new ways to conduct science and public education that appeal to a different sensibility and may help a new audience get excited about Earth science,” says ESRL director Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald, who supported development of the site. “Recruiting the next generation of Earth scientists is a priority for NOAA. Our site offers visitors a way to experience the planet through reality-based virtual adventures. Some of them may have shied away from science in the past.”

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, scientists may eventually collaborate on research, hold virtual meetings and give public presentations in the auditorium, according to ESRL’s Eric Hackathorn, who developed the island with Second Life design company Aimee Weber Studios. He is developing metrics for observing traffic patterns while guaranteeing privacy rights for the avatars and their real-life selves.

“We’re still brainstorming about how to use what seems to be an enormous potential,” says Hackathorn. “It’s a parallel world. Now what do we want to do with it? That’s where we are right now.” An extension to NOAA’s 2-D Web site is a good start, he adds. “In the future this may be what people think of when they think of Web sites.”

There’s no shortage of ideas on the NOAA site, dubbed “Meteora,” a Greek word meaning “things suspended in the air”-or, in scientists’ terms, atmospheric phenomena. The first climate change scenario illustrates a warming world with melting glaciers and rising sea levels. A virtual beach demonstrates how to recognize the onset of a tsunami, and eventually the site may enhance public awareness of rip tides, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. Science on a Sphere, an earlier invention of MacDonald’s, makes its three-dimensional virtual debut with four examples of its 80-plus dramatic visualizations of planetary data, including a mesmerizing view of nighttime lights around the globe and a 3-D panorama of ocean, sea, and lake depths. In the future, the sphere may sport its full view of Mars, a storm-after-storm replay of the 2005 hurricane season, and animations of global warming.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is celebrating 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Commission of Fish and Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America’s scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA. NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

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