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Oceanographers’ New Research Tools: Virtual Reality and 3D Printing

Scientists are transforming data into three dimensions to investigate the effects of climate change on the ocean – and potentially help rebuild dying coral reefs.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Scientists have developed technology to allow researchers to view ocean currents in three dimensions.Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

It’s a sunny, warm afternoon in Cape Cod, but instead of spending time outside on the beach, I’m sitting inside a small, air-conditioned room at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Also present is oceanographer Jake Gebbie. He flicks off the lights and turns on a computer and projector, illuminating one wall with an image of a large, gray sphere. His research assistant, Ben Greenwood, hands me a Nintendo Wii controller and a pair of black plastic 3D glasses.

When I slip them on, the sphere appears larger and in finer detail. It’s covered in gray crags, cliffs and bright, blue water. Gebbie nods at the controller in my hand, so I lift it and begin to click and a cursor appears on the screen. I hold down a button as the cursor hits the bottom right corner of the sphere, and I instinctively make a swooping upward motion with my arm as if spinning a globe so I can inspect the other side.

I make more arm movements and a patch of tight, wavy red lines appears above some of the gray undersea canyons. As he watches me investigate the Earth and its oceans in virtual reality, Gebbie – who developed the 3D map with scientists at the University of California, Davis – explains that these lines symbolize historical ocean currents, a newly developing area of research. Gebbie is focused on comparing ocean currents from the Last Glacial Maximum 26,500 years ago with those of today. His 3D map depicts not only the currents but also variations in temperature, salinity and depth.

Basically, I’m watching how and where ocean water flowed tens of thousands of years ago, precisely modeled on a virtual 3D Earth. And that is a great benchmark for scientists to determine the extent to which the ocean plays a role in climate variability: Whether it passively stores carbon and heat, or actively transports them around the world – potentially setting off a chain of climatic events. While Gebbie is working to better understand how the oceans may affect climate change, other scientists are using 3D imaging and printing technologies to investigate and possibly mitigate the effects of global warming on coral reefs.

Exploring data in its physical form – as opposed to studying numbers or graphs – is precisely the point of this virtual reality tool. Scientists say it’s especially helpful when attempting to accurately study “3D data” dependent on three variables, such as latitude, longitude and depth. Oliver Kreylos, one of the two U.C. Davis scientists involved in the project, says virtual reality can help prevent the distortion of the relative positions, sizes and spatial relationships of features in the data – a common issue with traditional “2D data.” Scientists have little direct information about historical ocean conditions, which can make it tricky to draw any conclusions about them. But combining the various pieces of data into a 3D map can offer them a clearer picture to study.

“Oceanographers have tended to describe deep ocean circulation in just two dimensions: latitude and depth,” said Gebbie. But to fully comprehend the ocean’s “conveyor belt” circulation system, scientists need to understand that energetic circulations occur in three dimensions. That’s when oceanographers realized they needed the help of computer scientists to handle such a 3D dataset.

Kreylos and Louise Kellogg, another U.C. Davis scientist, had developed KeckCAVES, a geological 3D virtual-reality project, in 2004 to improve the way scientists interpret complex geological data. Eventually Howard Spero, a U.C. Davis professor researching ancient climates and ocean conditions, inquired about the possibility of using that software to study oceans. One major question Spero sought to answer was how oceans’ circulation affects ocean chemistry over time. Kreylos and Kellogg contacted Gebbie in 2011, and together the scientists secured a National Science Foundation grant to support their work.

The team obtained detailed data points on ancient ocean circulation, chemistry, temperature and salinity from a chemical analysis of seabed-dwelling shelled organisms called foraminifera. An estimated 4,000 foraminifera species are distributed throughout the ocean globally. The scientists compared the modern distribution of certain cold-water and warm-water foraminifera with radiocarbon-dated fossils. That helped them identify where waters were historically cold or warm, lending insight into ocean circulation patterns.

Once they had the data, which had been compiled by Lorraine Lisiecki and her colleagues at U.C. Santa Barbara, the group recruited Greenwood and a post-doctoral investigator named Thomas Chalk to connect those data points globally. Lastly, the team coded the connected data points so Kreylos’s and Kellogg’s virtual reality software could read them. Now the program is used to educate lab visitors and help ocean scientists visualize data.

Other ocean-science driven 3D virtual-reality projects have been developed in recent years. One major initiative is the University of Sydney’s Ecological 3D Modeling Hub, where scientists build digital 3D recreations of coral reefs using photos captured with a variety of mapping systems. The models serve as teaching and research tools, but the goal is to use the maps to create artificial 3D-printed coral to replace dead coral on damaged reefs.

Scientists say the main benefit of 3D virtual reality is that it can help researchers better understand marine environments and the life they contain, and potentially inspire conservation efforts.

Yet, they caution that such technology is not a cure-all for climate change. Will Figueira, an associate professor at the University of Sydney who is involved in the Ecological Modeling Hub project, noted that 3D-printed coral could attract organisms that may help reefs recover and become more resilient to warming oceans. But no matter how advanced the technology, said Figueira, restoring the oceans and reefs “won’t happen if we don’t curb global carbon dioxide emissions.”

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