Part one of a series.
Just before 4 p.m. Sunday, a message from the future landed in Washington, D.C. Its location was sent out in a tweet: "GPS N38.872033 W77.019141, SW Waterfront Park. All seekers go!"
Trey Reyher, who was playing board games with friends at the time, decided to hop in his car and head out to find the "chronofact," the physical manifestation of a voice mail somehow sent backward in time.
Chronofacts carry messages from a variety of possible futures -- some sound neighborly and pleasant, while others sound downright apocalyptic and ugly. These messages make up the basis of FutureCoast, a collaborative storytelling game that explores what various people in the present day think climate change holds for their future.
After Reyher found the geometric plastic chronofact lying near the Women's Titanic Memorial on the Potomac riverside, his task was to decode it by taking a picture. In the voice mail, a woman from the year 2063 apologizes that her aquifer design beat out a colleague's for project funding.
"I didn't mean to steal your ideas. I know that our aquifer designs really look the same, and I'm sorry that the one I submitted won the commission," she said. "But I want to work with you on it. It's a big project, and we'll be bringing water back into the center of L.A. I think we could really use your brains here. I want to make this right. Give me a call."
In another message from 2065, a man tells his business partners that Arctic sea ice is returning but that their drilling wells in the Chukchi Sea are not equipped to handle the icy conditions. In one from 2039, a mom tells her pregnant daughter to consider leaving California to raise her baby somewhere with a better water supply and farmable land.
A 3-month immersion in 'cli-fi'
FutureCoast is a three-month-long climate fiction, or "cli-fi," project created by Columbia University's Polar Partnership with funding from the National Science Foundation. One part of the game involves participants hunting for physical chronofacts that have been planted in cities across the United States. The other involves people calling in from around the world to leave their own "voice mail from the future," which is added to the FutureCoast website.
The project seeks to reach the public on a personal level. There's lots of scientific information available on carbon dioxide levels, temperature rise, ice melt and other aspects of climate change, but these numbers are difficult to relate to, said Sara Thacher, one of the FutureCoast creators.
"Scientific models show sea level might rise, but it doesn't say how we're going to adapt to that and what it means on a personal level," she said. "That's what FutureCoast is really all about; it's asking you to envision what your personal response or the response of your children or the young people in your life might be to the outcomes of climate change."
Reyher, who works as a game design consultant, said he was compelled to find the chronofact out of a love for exploration. As he searched for the voice mail, he noticed he was also exploring his own concept of climate change in a much more tangible way.
"In the process of walking around the park looking for the chronofact, I was thinking, 'What does this park look like in 50 years when the rivers rise and the landscape changes?'" he said.
"There's clear data the climate is changing, that the planet is shifting in ways we somewhat understand but don't fully understand," he added. "I think the messages FutureCoast gives with voice mails bring a more emotional and empathetic response to people who may not understand the effects climate change will have on their lives in decades to come."
Adaptation, innovation and grief
Each voice mail engages with climate change in a unique way. In one voice mail from 2050, a woman in Alaska describes a community of floating houses, presumably made in response to sea-level rise.
"Hey, Gina. It's Kendra. Hey, I just remembered you were bringing your house over to visit this week, so I thought I better let you know I've moved out of Cordova North Pod 2 just over to our vacation place. I've got the house over at Hartney Bay now," she said.
The woman goes on to give her friend directions, noting that her home is at "a newly built island" that's not on the maps yet. In this imagined future, just how much land is underwater?
Other messages paint a bleaker picture where little or no climate adaptation and mitigation has taken place. Some refer to power outages, lethally high temperatures and school lockdowns due to poor air quality.
In one eerie voice mail, a young man says hi to his friend then suddenly notices a "wall of water" moving rapidly toward him. Then there's static, followed by panicked yells and swooshes, until the line goes dead.
Other messages paint a decidedly more hopeful picture. In one voice mail, a man asks his neighbor to turn on his "windjam" to help meet local energy demand over the weekend. In a message from 2033, a mother congratulates her son on his new job working on the high-speed electric train and adds that he should consider upgrading his old, beloved Tesla.
It's not just the politics, it's you
While the voice mails tackle climate change in different ways, few, if any, are politicized. Ken Eklund, the veteran designer behind FutureCoast and the popular alternate reality game World Without Oil, said using a fictional narrative to tackle a difficult issue encourages people to suspend judgment.
"We have been made accustomed to the idea that essentially it's climate change science versus climate change deniers and that is the conversation," he said. "What I think FutureCoast is really discovering is that if you go to the people, the conversation is not a polarized discussion. It's really one where a different set of questions emerge about how to adapt."
Yesterday, FutureCoast stopped collecting voice mails and sending out chronofacts for people to find. In the coming months, the creators will analyze messages. What were some of the most prominent concerns? The most popular solutions? And how closely did people's voice mails matched up with actual climate science? Their findings will eventually be presented in a paper.
Stephanie Pfirman, professor of environmental science at Barnard College who holds a joint position at the Columbia University Earth Institute, said the goal of the game wasn't necessarily to educate people on climate research. It was to get people today, who are in a position to address the issue, to simply think about it.
"Some people say they are very aware of the climate change issue, but others are not so engaged," Pfirman said.
To reach people, "stories really help a lot," she said. "It brings the issue home."