By the end of the century, sea level rise could force 13 million people to move away from the U.S. coasts. But it’s not just the coasts that will be affected—so will the places where those migrants end up.
In a study published last week in PLOS One, researchers used artificial intelligence to predict where those places are. The findings could have huge value to people not only living on the coast, but the communities that may deal with an influx of climate refugees inland over the coming century.
“Our findings indicate that everybody should care about sea-level rise, whether they live on the coast or not,” Bistra Dilkina, a Computer Science Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California who led the study, said in a statement. “This is a global impact issue.”
To predict where migrants could go, the new study examined projections of rising sea levels and population projections. Then, using data on where people moved after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, they trained machine-learning models to predict migration patterns.
The findings show that migrants will mostly head to land-locked cities like Atlanta and Dallas and rural and suburban areas in the Midwest. Houston could also see an influx of climate migrants because it’s near other cities that will be affected by sea level rise sooner, though recent floods show that might not be the wisest place to settle. That mass migration would vastly increase job competition and drive up housing prices.
“When migration occurs naturally, it is a great engine for economic activity and growth,” Juan Moreno Cruz, an economist who co-authored the study, said in a statement. “But when migration is forced upon people, productivity falls and human and social capital are lost as communities are broken apart.”
The future the researchers predicted is not far away. In fact, it’s already here in some ways. Research published late last year shows that Americans are already retreating. Since 1989, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought out over 40,000 flood-prone households, often in the aftermath of a disaster. By 2100, six feet of sea level rise could redraw the coastline of southern Florida, parts of North Carolina and Virginia, and most of Boston and New Orleans. And storms riding the higher tides will do plenty of damage before then.
This type of research could help urban planners and policymakers to prepare by expanding infrastructure in areas where people are likely to resettle, from roads to medical services. It also shows that local economies will have to plan for impacts as well. And the results also indicate migrants may have unique needs as their previous communities are broken apart, which speaks to the need for coastal communities to begin assessing how to retreat in the most manageable ways to minimize devastation.
“Understanding these migration decisions helps economies and policy makers prepare for what is to come and do as much as possible to make the influx of migration a positive experience that generates positive outcomes,” said Moreno Cruz.”
Millions of climate migrants settling into new communities will certainly create challenges, both for the migrants and for locals. How bad those challenges get will depend on how much we prepare.