The Natural History Museum of Utah tackles climate change head-on with new exhibit — complete with flying goats

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The "Oh Wow!" drawer of interesting bugs will be on display this weekend at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center for a Behind the Scenes look at the objects held in stewardship for the people of Utah. The public is invited to meet the scientists who build the collections and learn about current research and get an insiders view of the museum.

A new interactive exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah lets guests take the state’s fate into their hands and combat climate change head-on — sort of.

The Utah Climate Challenge was unveiled Monday, featuring a Sim City-esque video game that challenges players to build a Utah-sized society and provide enough food, energy and recreational opportunities for its population without worsening climate change.

Failing to balance the needs of the game’s human population with those of the environment can bring about natural disasters such as wildfires and dust storms, with the potential to destroy the players’ developments and set back their efforts to provide for the populace. Along the way, organizers say, participants learn how their actions affect the planet.

By choosing wisely, players can — because this is a video game, after all — reverse the effects of climate change. Poor choices, on the other hand, cause the state’s snowcapped mountains to disappear and the Great Salt Lake to dry up.

Participants in the multiplayer game can collaborate to save the world — or at least save the state in the challenge’s portrayal. Or players can run amok on their own, building beyond sustainable levels or capping the mountains with wind turbines to make in-game goats fly around the screen.

So far, most players at least try to save Utah from climate change, said the exhibit’s designer, Tim Lee — even if that goal can prove more challenging than they thought.

The game takes the place of an interactive exhibit in which players sought to guarantee an adequate water supply to Utah’s growing population. When the topic of replacing that aging game came up, Lee said the museum decided to tackle the larger issue directly: that climate change is real, and Utah is going to have to deal with it.

Museum officials assembled a team of scientists to create a new game with Preloaded, a London-based game development company. The goal, Lee said, was to create an interactive exhibit that would help museum patrons understand how individual actions impact the world’s climate.

Museum guests have been able to test the game since late July, Lee said. But with most of the game’s bugs now worked out — the flying goats remain part of the exhibit, by the way — the museum will formally present the new exhibit to the public this weekend, during its annual Behind the Scenes event.

The Utah Climate Challenge only resets once a day. So, as in real life, players inherit the condition of their simulated Utah from the team that came before. They then continue to make choices about sustainability, food production and urban sprawl — as the simulated future of Utah hangs in the balance.

Four museum patrons who tried out the game Monday morning were so successful they nearly eliminated climate change altogether.

Kathy Detemple, a Park City resident and a member of the winning team, attributed that success to a heavy reliance on the game’s futuristic vertical farms and smog-absorbing turbines — technologies Detemple said she would like to see in real-world Utah, were that possible.

The cutting-edge video game is not the only climate-related initiative the museum is tackling.

Researchers are using some of the museum’s collections of plant and animal specimens — some dating back to the late 1800s — to try to understand the impact of climate change in Utah, said Eric Rickart, a curator of vertebrate zoology at the facility.

Rickart said the extensive collections offer invaluable insights into the distribution movement and survival of various species as they may have adapted to weather-related changes in their habitats over time.

Though not typically available to the public, those research collections go on view this week — along with the new game — as part of the museum’s Behind the Scenes event Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.