Weather Channel demos Hurricane Florence 'worst-case scenario' with mixed reality

At 6 feet, humans are underwater and cars are floating. At 9 feet, it's much worse.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
3 min read

If you aren't convinced Hurricane Florence needs to be taken seriously, the Weather Channel aired some sobering videos that might change your mind.

In one video, meteorologist Erika Navarro demonstrates what a progressive storm surge would mean at a human level. (Storm surge is simply the "abnormal rise of water generated by a storm" that is "produced by water being pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds," according to the National Hurricane Center.)

"Storm surge is going to be potentially life-threatening for some areas along the US coastline," Navarro says. Then she demonstrates what's described as a "reasonable, worst-case scenario for areas along North Carolina."

Here's where the video gets heart-in-throat scary. As Navarro stands and speaks, the weather maps behind her dissolve away, and she is shown standing in a computer-generated neighborhood. The CGI water rises behind her, setting a red car afloat and flooding homes.

"This water's over my head," the five-foot-two Navarro says as the storm surge rises to 6 feet. "I wouldn't be able to stand here, even withstand the force of of the water coming in. There might even be dangers, like chemicals and exposed power lines lurking in the waters."

As the surge rises to 9 feet, Navarro explains water is now through the first level of most homes and into the second.

"This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation," she warns, telling those in the storm's path to stay safe. "If you're told to go, you need to go."

Navarro isn't the only Weather Channel meteorologist to demonstrate the storm surge. The channel also posted a YouTube video of a similar demo.

The Weather Channel has been using augmented reality since 2015. This year, it partnered with content and technology provider The Future Group and its impressive Immersive Mixed Reality technology, which uses Unreal Engine software. The tech debuted on TWC in June, when meteorologist Jim Cantore used it to walk viewers through what would happen if a tornado hit the channel's own studios. A demo showing the power of lightning followed in July.

Reaction to the hurricane explainer has been overwhelmingly positive, said Michael Potts, Weather Channel's vice president of design.

"It was created to evoke an automatic visceral reaction, to imagine that this could be real," Potts said. "And people are sharing it with friends and family as a warning tool. The amount of engagement across all of our platforms has been some of the highest we've ever seen."

The neighborhood Navarro is standing in looks real, but it's all virtual graphics created in a new green-screen studio built at the channel's Atlanta headquarters.

"All the graphics you see, from the cars, the street, the houses and the entire neighborhood are created using the Unreal Engine — they are not real," Potts says. "The circle she is standing in is the presentation area, it's a 'safe' space that is not affected by the weather. ... The maps and data are all real-time and the atmospheric conditions are driven by the forecast."

 Viewers commenting on Twitter were sobered by the stark demonstrations.

"Excellent perspective! Don't stick around for it," wrote one Twitter user.

"What an awesome and frightening depiction of a storm surge!" wrote another.

"In hurricane season, storm surge can have a devastating impact to peoples lives — roughly half of all deaths in tropical cyclones are from storm surge," Potts said. "And this is something that can be prevented. Our hope is that people watch, share and ultimately listen to their local officials and head warnings in time to save lives."

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