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Environmental Engineering: Connecting to Nature with Virtual Reality


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Environmental Engineering: Connecting to Nature with Virtual Reality


Verfügbar unter/Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11970/110904 Vorgeschlagene Zitierweise/Suggested citation:

Jörg Imberger (2023): Environmental Engineering: Connecting to Nature with Virtual Reality.

In: Hydrolink 2023/1. Madrid: International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research (IAHR). S. 26-22.

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Environmental Engineering:

‘Connecting to Nature’ with Virtual Reality

By Jörg Imberger


The objective of this article is to examine the world view of our indigenous forefathers in “connecting with country” and use this as the foundation to develop a new modern management technology for the State of Western Australia (WA) that takes advantage of the wonderful opportunities we have, living in this beautiful place.

As is well known, before an action can be initiated, we need to realise that we have a problem. The indigenous people appear to be good at recognising if their actions were environmentally destructive at a local scale of a few kilometres, but their response always seemed to be much the same and that was to move to another location if things got too bad. This worked well for about 60,000 years, because the population was small in a very large country with a total area of 26.4 billion hectares covered with a liveable environment; at peak population density it reached one person in one million hectares or an area of 100 km2, plenty of room to keep moving to new locations and living in nature with no infrastructure where nature had restored itself. This vast area, low density meant that they did not need to develop any tolerance for a dirty local environment, but rather this way of life strengthened their concept that things are always better elsewhere. Clearly, this fostered an intolerance to even good local conditions and an urge to move to what looked superficially as a better green space. Their enhanced sensitivity to their local environment, coupled with their response strategy of simple moving to a fresh location, also explains their high rate of mental illness and suicide when constrained to live in geographically fixed villages as they now have to do under non-indigenous rule.

The stress introduced by their inability to follow their traditional cure for harsh conditions is just too much to bear. As discussed in the next section to develop a tolerance to living in one place would require a reprogramming of their Behavioural biogeoche- mical, Robotic Cell Structure (4D-BRCS, “four-dimensional” [4D:

x, y, z, time] cell structure, Dekker et al.2) to accept this change.

The 4D-BRCS is programmed mostly in the first 5 to 20 years of life by the experiences a person goes through that are per- ceived through the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch over time (“six-dimensional” (6D) Observation Structure (6D-OS)). It is easy to accept that if a person has their brain

Humans are without doubt the most invasive and destructive species on earth. Now that technology has given humans global, instantaneous reach and action using the internet, together with social media, humans are making non-holistic, irrational decisions that are having globally damaging impact on nature.

It has become urgent to take stock and examine human behaviour and our relationship with nature.

If humans continue in a business-as-usual mode, in global village setting without the individuals feeling the consequences of their actions then the rate of change has lost its brakes and life on this earth will become extremely stressful for humans resulting in possibly global warfare.

programmed with one set of experiences and genetic hereditary, that it will be difficult for that person to function, without stress, in an environment, where the daily challenges are totally different to what their 4D-BRCS were programmed for. A similar challenge is being faced by non-indigenousnon-indigenous people, at present, who are having their 6D-OS replaced by the internet which at best is three-dimensional (3D) (i.e., sight, hearing and time) and only between people, nature cannot respond, except by bringing on a disaster which makes the news.

The behavioural characteristic of always thinking the grass is greener elsewhere seems to have been developed by all indigenous people around the world and has been hard wired into humans 4D-BRCS of all the non-indigenousnon-indigenous people as well. With introduction of the extensive use of the internet and the transition to a global village, people no longer use their own 6D-OS, to experience their environment and the impact they have on it. Most people now “experience” their world with a one-dimensional (1D) data stream coming from the internet. Facebook and other social media platforms are examples of where the data streams are converted to picture and sound over time. However, there is no counterpart where people can communicate with and experience nature. This has added enormous additional stress to people’s lives. Recent social science research has shown that children who grow up in an apartment with access to the world only via the internet with no access to a garden are 10 times more likely to commit a crime in later life9. The reason for this influence of the garden does not seem to be fully understood, but it is most likely that the recently discovered 4D-BRCS needs to connect with the 6D-OS experiences, during the childhood years to develop pro- perly8. Human responses appear to be controlled by the 4D- BRCS embedded in all our cells, suggesting that humans are really robots controlled by the 4D-BRCS so that the difference between humans is characterised by differences in the structure of the 4D-BRCS, which as shown later seems to be made up of two separate computational entities. First, a gene component 4D-BRCS-G and second a self-learning component 4D-BRS- SL. The gene computational entity 4D-BRCS-G obviously con- trols such things as skin colour, eye shape, body characteristics, and the tolerance to various diseases. The thousands of analogue


computer components that control visibility, pain distribution, etc. are all part of this component. Clearly this component also has a self-learning capacity as seen by the body’s response to exercise and diet. The self-learning computational entity 4D- BRCS-SL seems to control our egos, communication skills, in general all behavioural characteristics, with the structure being such that it can access inputs from the 6D-OS, without stress.

According to recent social science research results8, the 4D- BRCS-SL is built and programmed in the first five to ten years of human life and after this the 4D-BRCS-SL can only be chan- ged by undergoing a major trauma. However, given that this whole computer system is now only getting a 1D time series in- put rather than 6D-OS input seems to be the reason why humans are not responding in their behaviour in a way that people do who have a proper connection between their 4D-BRCS control structure and the 6D-OS.

The success of social media platforms motivated the idea of developing what could be thought of as EarthBook, a virtual reality technology of nature on this earth coupled to an easy to use interrogation software, that would allow people, young and old, to experience and communicate with nature with at least two senses, visual and sound, in the same way people communicate with each other on social media platforms.

Swan-Canning Estuary System Example

This was achieved with a technology, originally developed for the management of the water quality in the Swan-Canning Estuary (WA)7, 4. This technology, shown in Figure 1, consisted simply of 3D simulation numerical models providing both real- time and forecast 3D outputs of all the meteorological, hydro- dynamic and biogeochemical state variables at a variable reso- lution, down to a few meters in the catchment, the contributing rivers, the estuary and the Perth coastal waters. Further, the models were all embedded in an input-output data base manage- ment software. As seen in Figure 1, the models were existing state-of the-art simulation models for aquatic nature, the inno- vation was in the coupling of the models. The same technology may, equally well, be developed for the environment in general and when combined with a much-advanced, present, environ-

Figure 1 | Structure and components of the system for the Swan-Canning Estuary.

mental engineering practice this will overcome the weakness of the indigenous approach of allowing things to deteriorate and then simply moving location, which is no longer an option.

In line with the above, this software can be called “4D Virtual Connection to Nature” (4D-VCN).

Giving the 4D-VCN software access to a 3D experience (sight, hearing and time), and modern environmental engineer- ing4, keeping the environment healthy should no longer prove to be a technical challenge, only a matter of governments having the political will! The hope is that the political leaders still reflect the aspirations of the general public. So, giving the general public open access to 4D-VCN, will raise the general public’s awareness of the needs of nature and the combination of an aware general public and a willing political system should improve the harmony between humans and nature1.

Why Western Australia

Further, by generalizing this to nature as a whole, this approach is shown conclusively that WA can be turned into “That Sustainable Place Down Under” and the State Capital, Perth could become the “Garden City of the World”. If managed correctly, it can be shown that the new industries supported by this new world view will also conservatively generate an incredible income of $4T per annum compared to the present GDP of $56.5B, WA could auto- matically become the sustainable example for the world.

It is useful to provide some details of sensitivity of the of nature in WA and the two human invasions of WA, first by indi- genous people 60,000 years ago and second by the Europeans approximately 200 years ago and provide the data necessary for the evaluation of the 4D-VCN. The main reason why WA is a good domain to carry out such a trial is that we are a very young culture with 28% of the non-indigenous people population being born overseas and 78% of people have parents born over- seas. The indigenous people here are the oldest culture in the world to have lived in one geographic place, but they have, unfortunately, little influence in the non-indigenous community.

This makes WA very sensitive to external pressure compared to other countries like France, that has an old, uniform and cohesive culture.


Geologically, Australia is one of the oldest continents in the world, forming as a separate continent about 152 million years ago. The vegetation that has developed on this old remote conti- nent is unique in terms of type, density and the diversity and has not been very much influenced by species from other conti- nents. Evolution favoured species that could cope with very low nutrient concentrations in the sediment and also species that could pump a lot of water as they had to bring rainfall with them all away from the coast. These two conditions forced a genetic uniqueness in WA that resulted in incredible endemic biodiversity per square kilometre6. By way of example, Banksia plants are endemic to Australia; southwest WA is the main centre of bio- diversity in Western Australia, to quote the WA Biodiversity Science Institute10 “Western Australia (WA) has a globally unique biodiversity characterised by significant regional endemism, meaning that we have plants and animals that only live in a particular location. This is due to the State’s geographical ex- panse, climatic diversity, areas of relative wilderness, regions with extremely nutrient-impoverished soils, and the fact that significant areas of WA have not been covered by sea or glacia- ted over geological time.

By way of example, there are more species of flowering plants in the Fitzgerald River National Park than in the United Kingdom, contributing to the South West of WA being one of only 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots (and the only in Australia), defined as geographical regions that have at least 1,500 vas- cular plant species and have lost at least 70% of their original supporting habitat.”

Banksia plants are incredibly efficient nutrient cycling and water pumping species3; evapo-transpiring per day, on average, an amount of water equal in weight to the total canopy weight

Figure 2 | Depth-averaged simulated retention time in days (color and black contours) in the Swan-Canning Estuary obtained from the hydrodynamic model.

of the plant cover. The vegetation takes the water out of the ground as liquid water and pumps it into the atmosphere in the form of water vapour. The Australian native vegetation can therefore be likened to a solar powered water treatment plant and conveyance system. The vegetation achieves this nutrient efficiency by recycling the nutrients that fall to the ground with the leaves and by storing the bulk of nutrients in the vegetation itself. This makes this vegetation land masses formed around 152 million years before present, very sensitive to bushfires, because when the canopy burns the nutrient cycling is distur- bed5. So, WA is not only the host for very important, endemic fauna and flora, but also there the signal to noise with respect to human activity impacts is very large. These two attributes make WA the ideal place to test the effectiveness of new human behaviour changes strategies.

Public Response

The website with the Swan-Canning Estuary System (SCES) was put on the University of Western Australia, Centre for Water Research (CWR) website around 2008. The University had a change of management which led to the closing of CWR in 2015. In 2009 the CWR was most fortunate to attract attention of the Millennium Kids (https://www.millenniumkids.com.au/), an NGO whose mission is to help children of all ages to cope with modern life. They took over the role of introducing the primary and high school children in the Swan-Canning catchment to the science of SCES. They not only helped the children use the system, but also provided a tremendous amount of construc- tive feedback to the CWR website builders. This collaboration led to a version of the SCES that provided output, on request, in the form of plan view and vertical section contours of all


simulated variables. All the schools and some farmers were also given accurate seasonal weather forecasts on request.

The most popular variables were surface water temperature and surface wave height in the coastal ocean. Surfers would use the site to decide where to meet friends for surfing, a popu- lar sport in Perth. School teachers would get forecasts for algal blooms and take the biology classes out to take water samples.

Another much interrogated variable was the water retention time (see Figure 2) and associated water quality variables by real estate people, vendors, buyers and sellers who put a response on the website. Various school activities took advantage of the availability of SCES; some examples to illustrate the range of activities are shown in Figures 3 and 4.

The actual responses of the students can be seen and heard on the 6th to the last view in the talk “Human extinction:

Inevitable or avoidable?” at:



Figure 3a shows a student who gave a very learned and polished account for her environmental colleagues about the measure- ment of the salinity of the surface estuarine waters.

Figure 3b shows a student interviewing an elderly resident who has grown up close to her school. This activity allowed students to docu-ment the history of the local area. This turned out to be a great way of learning history, much better than just reading a book.

Figure 3c shows a young student trying to understand the history of the Swan River while connected with indigenous people of the area. It is important to remember that Country kids experience a different life to City children. Once again, instead, of reading about these differences in a book, children started to inform each other using the virtual reality platform.

Figure 4a shows a snapshot of the way the forest had deterio- rated in a country area close to where the student was living.

Figure 4b shows a student explaining what type of trash he was finding on the shores of the river. He stressed the impor- tance of removing plastics.

Figure 4c shows a young six-year old student lamenting the deterioration of the river systems, crying at the end of her presentation.


Figure 3 | Screenshots of three examples of school children communicating with nature to help with their school work.


Figure 4 | Screen shots of school children using the technology to push their cause.


Clearly, from these examples the process of learning was com- pletely changed by the introduction of the SCES. Children started with a curiosity of their own and quickly brought their peers along by raising their awareness. Country kids showing their life to city kids and vice versa. This is very different to getting knowledge from a book and teacher.


Feedback from participants and their parents clearly showed that the technology had a number of major impacts. First, stu- dents and parents developed a better, broader and more equal connection; parents were no longer always correct. Second, it


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3 |Denton, M.D., Veneklaas, E.J., Freimoser, F.M and Lambers, H. (2007). Banksia species (Proteaceae) from severely phosphorus-impoverished soils exhibit extreme efficiency in the use and re-mobilization of phosphorus. Plant, Cell and Environment, 30(12): 1557-65. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-3040.2007.01733

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Jörg Imberger

Professor Dr. Jörg Imberger was the founder and Director of the Centre for Water Research, UWA. He is a passionate environmentalist with research interests in the motions and mixing in catchments, rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal seas in response to both natural and anthropogenic forcing. By coupling the mixing and transport process understanding with the aquatic ecology in these domains he has been able to make progress in quantifying the impact that human actions are having on nature in the above aquatic domains, both in the short term by direct local developments and in the long term by, for instance, global warming. This has allowed him to develop strategies how humans can better program their cells structures and so lead a more sustainable life style.

In 1995 he received the Onassis Prize and in 1996 the "Stockholm Water Prize", also known as "Water Nobel Prize". Jörg Imberger started then new discipline of “Environmental Engineering “ in 1979 which is seen as a landmark in the research focused on water movements in rivers, lakes and coastal regions. The most respectful commentators talk about "before and after Imberger."He is a a Fellow of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni; DCE, UCB, Fellow (Inaugural): Australasian Fluid Mechanics Society, Fellow: Royal Academy of Engineering, UK, Fellow: American Geophysical Union, Member: US National Academy of Engineering, Fellow: Academy of Engineering, Argentina, Fellow: The Water Academy, Oslo, Norway, Fellow: The Australian Academy of Science, Fellow: Institution of Engineers, Fellow: Australian Academy of Tech Sciences and Engineering. Since 1969 he has worked on over 200 different research projects in over 50 countries, providing advice on how to better manage standing wayters. He has published 5 books, with two further in preparation, contributed to 21 books and Google Scholar credits him with 25,828 citations and an h-Index of 73.

raised the awareness within the family of the wellbeing of the environment. Third, it raised hope that the world was not coming to an end. The parents of the participating children sent CWR approximately $1M unsolicited research funding during 2010- 2014 showing their appreciation. If every country could set up an open access virtual reality of Nature, this could make people happier and more creative and stop nature from being driven into extinction.

Acknowledgement: The author is grateful to Dr Clelia Marti for doing a careful edit of the draft manuscript and getting me to clarify many previous ambiguities.



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