Migration from sea-level rise could reshape cities inland

photo of flooded New Orleans

KatrinaNewOrleansFlooded.jpgA major new publication sheds light on one of the implications of sea level rise - where will displaced people from inundated coastal areas go?

In a paper published today in Nature Climate Change, researchers estimate that approximately 13.1 million people could be displaced by rising ocean waters, with Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix as top destinations for those forced to relocate.

The study is the first attempt to model the destination of millions of potentially displaced migrants from heavily populated coastal communities.

"We typically think about sea level rise as a coastal issue, but if people are forced to move because their houses become inundated, the migration could affect many landlocked communities as well," said the study's lead author, Mathew Hauer, who completed his doctoral degree in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of geography.

While sea-level rise assessments are numerous and may help plan for the development of critical infrastructure, few research studies have grappled with where displaced people and families will go. No previous studies model how migration caused by sea-level rise will affect population other than in the directly affected coastal areas.

Relationships between environmental stressors and migration are highly complex, as responses range from short-term, temporary migration to permanent, long-distance migration. Sea-level rise is a unique environmental stressor because it permanently converts habitable land to uninhabitable water.

Hauer was trained as a demographer in our department of geography, and so benefitted from the wisdom and guidance of many of our best faculty. This work has already and will continue to gain wide attention, and we welcome being a part of the discussions that will hopefully shape policy to help our citizens. It's rare that a single paper might go such a long way in that direction, but here we.

Image: Significant flooding in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, via wikimedia commons