Communicating Science with Animation

Derek Norpchen calls his work eye candy. “I take the data that the scientists gather in the field and turn it into animations and visualizations so that the projects sponsors and the public can better understand the science behind the issue.”

One of his recent projects, Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation, is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art. Norpchen created a 30-foot-long map of the Sierra Nevada mountain range (near Independence Lake) and designed digital animations that predict three various global warming scenarios: revealing what will happen if nothing is done, if modest interventions are made, and conversely if landscapes are generated to serve cultural and natural needs. Norpchen worked with internationally-renowned environmental artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison for the project. You can view the work in the Feature Gallery at the Nevada Museum of Art through December 4.

Norpchen’s desire to communicate science to mass audience started when enrolled in environmental science courses at Sierra Nevada College. He focused on blending science and art throughout his undergraduate career, taking inspiration from such scientists as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.

Seeing that visualization was much more than a passing fad, Norpchen enrolled at the University of Nevada in the geography program where he is currently finishing his master’s thesis on the use of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) in classifying specific grasses in the Ash Meadows preserve. LIDAR is an optical remote sensing technology that can measure the distance to, or other properties of a target by illuminating the target with light, often using pulses from a laser. Norpchen uses the LIDAR measurements as data points to create the visual representations and animations.

He’s also worked with several of his colleagues at DRI on animations that show Walker Lake water users and helicopter dust scenarios for the Department of Defense.

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