People are moving en masse to places at high risk of climate disasters, despite the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in recent years, researchers say.
A study released Thursday by researchers at the University of Vermont found that over the past decade, Americans have moved away from areas prone to summer heat waves and hurricanes, such as the central United States and the coastal of the Gulf. Yet many are also migrating to regions affected by extreme wildfires, heat and worsening drought, researchers have found.
They also saw an exceptional increase in the number of people moving to hurricane-prone Florida, a growing trend in recent decades.
“What surprised me quite a bit is that many of these climate risks are not yet affecting people’s decision to move,” Mahalia Clark, the study’s lead author and graduate researcher at the University, told CNN. University of Vermont Gund Institute for the Environment. . “It may be that (disasters) haven’t had that long to start working their way into people’s minds to really affect them in terms of choice.”
Researchers have found an alarming upward trend in the number of people flocking to the wildfire-prone and drought-stricken West, where states face unprecedented water shortages. Data from the study shows an increase in the number of people moving to southern Nevada and parts of Arizona, both of which are grappling with dwindling groundwater and the Colorado River water crisis. .
But Americans don’t factor those risks into their decision to move, researchers have found. The study highlighted other aspects such as mountains, beautiful landscapes, lakes or ocean and outdoor recreation as key influences in the decision to move west.
“Decisions about migration are this very complex personal decision, where people weigh factors about job opportunities, where the family lives, and potentially also some environmental factors like a nice climate, good weather, beautiful scenery or potentially certain risk factors,” Clark said. .
They are also migrating to major cities like Nashville, Charlotte, DC and Atlanta as well as Pacific Northwest suburbs, where urban development is increasing alongside climate risks.
Meanwhile, people are moving away from areas of much of the Great Plains, the Midwest, along the Mississippi River, as well as large parts of New York State and West Virginia – areas where flooding is common.
And while Americans are less attracted to certain areas where hurricanes are common — mostly along the east coast — coastal areas that are at high risk for the most destructive storms, like the coasts of Florida and Texas, remain key migration hotspots.
Clark said that’s because many people — especially Florida retirees — are drawn to the warm climate, beaches and other quality-of-life factors that outweigh the seemingly low risk of a potentially deadly hurricane.
Still, she said, when people are choosing between counties with similar population density and characteristics within the state, they’re likely to choose the county with the lower hurricane risk.
The findings mirror a 2021 report by real estate firm Redfin that found Americans are moving to places with high weather risks such as heat, drought, fires and floods. And in some of those places, house prices are even rising as demand increases.
Thursday’s study “suggests that many people may experience an unpleasant surprise when they move to a new part of the country and don’t realize that the hazards in their environment have also changed dramatically,” said Yale climatologist Jennifer Marlon. . School of Environment, which is not involved in the study, told CNN.
“I am not surprised that wildfires and smoke do not weigh heavily in people’s decision to move because these events are often localized and are still relatively infrequent, even if they are becoming more frequent and more dangerous,” she added.
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Researchers collected migration data from the US Census Bureau, natural hazard frequencies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and forest cover data from the National Land Cover Database to consider many different factors that can affect people’s decisions.
But Marlon points to gaps in some of this data that could impact the link the authors are trying to make. For example, the FEMA heat wave data that the researchers use shows large parts of the country, particularly in the Rocky Mountains, with missing heat ratings.
“(The authors) say that mountainous areas tend not to have heat waves, but the missing data (FEMA) covers more than mountainous counties,” she said. “It can be difficult to measure weather and climate hazards that vary so much in space and time.”
The researchers say they plan to dig deeper into that space to better understand how Americans migrate within the country and what influences their decisions. For now, they say, city planners and policymakers must find ways to stop adding new development in climate-vulnerable places in order to protect the people who move there.
If they don’t, the socio-economic toll will only get worse as climate change progresses.
“Moving more people to high-risk areas is going to be extremely expensive,” Marlon said. “The question simply becomes who is going to pay for the damages.”
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