MILL VALLEY, Calif.—A 7-year-old with her bike helmet still on saw more than marshes and the shimmer of an inlet in the northern San Francisco Bay when she looked through a black viewfinder next to a popular bike path near her home.

“Look, Mommy, it’s the floods!” exclaimed Ashlyn. Her mother, Tanya Steinhofer, had never stopped at the devices before, but now she took a look.

The two viewfinders, called Owls, show panoramic virtual-reality images of how sea-level rise would change this area. The project, funded by a $150,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, aims to bring the local community into discussions about climate change adaptation.

Flooding is no stranger to Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. In December of last year, torrential downpours combined with a king tide to put this area under around 3 feet of water. The floods also closed roads, including the highway to San Francisco; downed power lines; and damaged businesses and homes. In one visualization of the flood, the Owls show water stretching back onto the bustling road and football field.

With the approximately 3 extra feet of sea-level rise projected for the region within the next 50 years or so, it could happen more frequently and at a higher cost. Only the top row of the football bleachers would poke out from the bay, one image shows.

Others present what the area could look like with construction to protect against sea-level rise, like a sea wall or an eco-berm, a landscaped levee. A survey built into the Owls gathers input from passers-by about what they see, both the sea-level rise and the ideas for infrastructure, to feed back to the county.

“I knew the flooding was bad, and I knew it was going to get worse, but I need to get more info. This was just a quick visual,” said Steinhofer about the different construction suggestions.

‘We’re in this together’
Marin County doesn’t need much convincing about the threat of climate change. The local government has pushed initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for decades. The region has one of the most liberal and well-off populations in the country. Now, faced with rising waters, the county is starting pilot restoration projects and vulnerability assessments of bay- and oceanside towns in earnest.

Getting the public involved is key, said Leslie Alden, an aide to county Supervisor Kate Sears, who represents southern Marin.

“We’re in this together,” she said. “We need them to understand that this is going to cost, so we are going to have to choose and make these decisions as a larger community.”

The two viewfinders along the bike path went live in May, backed by a collaboration among FEMA, Marin County, environmental communications nonprofit Climate Access and tech startup Owlized Inc.. They will stay there until late this month.

The FEMA-funded package includes a website with more information about different development options. The county will also hold a big community meeting Oct. 8 where residents and policymakers will go over different ideas to fight sea-level rise.

Organizers hope the strategy to mobilize a local community will catch on as more and more coastal towns face the effects of climate change and the need to protect their shorelines.

“One of the big challenges we always face in getting people engaged and take action on climate change is they keep thinking this is going to happen to someone else, somewhere else, or to someone in the future, far away,” said Susanne Moser, an independent social science researcher on climate change analyzing the project’s results.

The Owls make sea-level rise tangible, she said. But she and other project partners spent a long time figuring out how to then give viewers outlets for action, rather than scaring them away, she added.

“You can’t show people the world is changing and then leave them hanging—you have to bridge to what can be done,” said Cara Pike, the director of Climate Access, which is taking the lead on the project.

Other Bay Area communities have shown interest in the approach. Within the next few months, similar Owls funded by FEMA will be installed at sites in San Francisco and San Mateo, Pike said.

360-degree, computer-generated disasters
At the bike path along the marshes between Mill Valley and Sausalito, users can click through four visualizations displayed on a tablet built into the devices. They are based on 360-degree photos taken from this precise location, said Aaron Selverston, CEO of Owlized, the San Leandro, Calif., company that makes the Owls.

His team then plugged sea-level-rise data into 3-D models of local topography to make the images.

“People ask me, ‘Were you out here taking photos of the flood?’” said Selverston. “It’s all computer-generated, but it’s photo-realistic.”

Details in the various visualizations include graffiti of an owl and of the logo of the project, “Here, Now, Us”; a kayak; California poppies; and a man taking a selfie.

The angle of the sun and weather might not match up, but what people see through the device as they move it around syncs up with the surroundings. Several sensors capture the angle and position of the viewfinder head and send it to the software, said Selverston. The Owl itself has gone through four designs.

So far, the survey has collected more than 3,700 user responses. Most people want more information and updates. Hundreds said they would get involved and attend meetings, and a smaller portion said they wouldn’t do anything.

Close to 30 percent of users are younger than 15.

During a single hour on a recent Saturday, around a dozen kids stopped to look at the visualizations. Bikers and self-proclaimed environmentalists made up most of the handful of adults.

Stephen Loane, a longtime resident of Sonoma and Marin counties, stopped to chat with Selverston after using one of the Owls. He got into the nitty-gritty of adaptation.

“OK, say we build a sea wall. How is that going to work? Are we pouring concrete? Are we dredging in the bay?” Loane asked.

Selverston responded: “See? This is the type of conversation we need to start having.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500