London, Tokyo Submerged by Rising Seas -- In "Second Life"

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 4, 2007
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

Tokyo, Amsterdam, and the entire Mediterranean island of Ibiza were inundated with floodwaters today due to rising sea levels brought on by global warming.

Or at least, that would have been the headline if events in the virtual world Second Life mirrored reality.

A rolling flood temporarily swamped several areas of the online world as part of a campaign to illustrate the potential environmental and financial impacts of climate change.

"Our message was, You may have a second life, but [you still need to] offset your second life in real life," said David de Rothschild, a London-based environmentalist and adventurer whose nonprofit Adventure Ecology helped stage today's flood.

De Rothschild, who is also a National Geographic Society emerging explorer, noted that because of the computer equipment required to power Second Life, people's online personas, or avatars, consume as much energy as the average real-world Brazilian.

(National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Soggy Avatars?

Unlike traditional online games, Second Life is a virtual environment where avatars can buy "land" to build artificial neighborhoods, start businesses, or hold events.

(Related: "Second Life," Other Virtual Worlds Reshaping Human Interaction" [October 17, 2006].)

More than 5.2 million people inhabit the online world. At any one time between 20,000 and 25,000 "residents" are online.

"Basically you go and create your own character, your own life. You can do what you want," de Rothschild said.

The virtual-world flood, he said, was a fresh way to raise awareness among thousands of users about the potential damage related to global warming.

But creating the watery catastrophe was no small feat. Each territory in Second Life is owned and controlled by individual avatars, making large-scale "public" events very tricky.

Adventure Ecology therefore partnered with London-based marketing agency Ogilvy and Anshe Chung, the largest real estate developer in Second Life, to stage the flood.

The group then sent floodwaters cascading into the virtual equivalents of London's Knightsbridge neighborhood, the Netherlands, the Spanish island of Ibiza, and other regions.

These are among the same low-lying areas in the real world that could be swamped by rising sea levels.

According to a February report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by up to 23 inches (59 centimeters) by the end of this century.

Many scientists believe this is an underestimate.

During the floods, which were temporary and caused no lasting damage, Adventure Ecology had avatars on hand to explain what was happening and how to stop such events from occurring in the real world.

"The idea was, this happened virtually, but this could really happen in real life and you need to do something about it," de Rothschild said.

"Really Good Vibe"

According to de Rothschild, several avatars were at first confused by the floods. But they quickly started helping each other out, getting each other onto roofs, and carrying on with their daily lives.

"It was definitely, generally, a really good vibe," he said.

Giles Rhys Jones, a director at Ogilvy, wrote on his blog that Second Life participants were "not phased" by the flooding.

"The inhabitants of one bar," he wrote, "replaced the tables & stools with boats and carried on drinking—albeit discussing the dangers of global warming."

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