Study: Migration Heating Up in Fire-Prone Regions

Real estate is red-hot, literally and figuratively, in areas of the U.S. that are hard hit by climate change.

Flames from the Rocky Fire approach a house on July 31, 2015 in Lower Lake, California.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Affordable homes. Good schools. Safe streets. Clean air. High walkability. These are just a few of the things that Americans look for when they’re relocating to a new community. If you ask climate scientists, however, there’s something else they should seriously consider: the likelihood of extreme weather and natural disasters due to climate change.

A new study of U.S. migration and natural hazards suggests that in at least some cases, families are, in fact, factoring climate change into their decisions when they move. In other cases, however, they’re ignoring it at significant peril, it finds.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) and published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics, the nationwide study spans 10 years of data—from 2010 to 2020—and claims to be the largest ever analysis of how natural disasters, climate change, and other factors have impacted migration within the United States.

“Our goal was to understand how extreme weather is influencing migration as it becomes more severe with climate change,” the study’s lead author, Mahalia Clark, a researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, said in a statement.

To conduct their analysis, Clark and her colleagues combined census data with data on natural disasters, weather, temperature, land cover, and demographic and socioeconomic factors. What they found is that Americans en masse are fleeing many of the U.S. counties that are hardest hit by two common disasters fueled by climate change: hurricanes and deadly heatwaves. That includes places in the Midwest, the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River.

The same Americans, meanwhile, are flocking to many of the U.S. counties that are known for two other types of climate disasters: extreme summer heat and wildfires. That includes places in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest (in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah), Texas, and the Southeast (for example, Nashville, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.).

“These findings are concerning, because people are moving into harm’s way—into regions with wildfires and rising temperatures, which are expected to become more extreme due to climate change,” Clark said.

Echoed Clark’s co-author, Gillian Galford, “These findings suggest that, for many Americans, the risks and dangers of living in hurricane zones may be starting to outweigh the benefits of life in those areas. That same tipping point has yet to happen for wildfires and rising summer heat, which have emerged as national issues more recently.”

One destination that bucks researchers’ observed trends is Florida, which has remained a top migration destination despite a history of hurricanes. Along with wildfire risk, researchers found that top migration destinations shared a few things in common, including warmer winters, proximity to water, moderate tree cover, moderate population density, and high human development index (HDI) scores. Florida checks many of those boxes.

“The decision to move is a complicated and personal decision that involves weighing dozens of factors,” Clark noted. “Weighing all these factors, we see a general aversion to hurricane risk, but ultimately—as we see in Florida—it’s one factor in a person’s list of pros and cons, which can be outweighed by other preferences.”

Because development can exacerbate risks to people and property in fire-prone areas, researchers hope their analysis will make an impression on city planners, convincing them to discourage new development in areas where fires are more likely or more difficult to fight. At a minimum, they say, policymakers must advance fire prevention in high-growth regions by working to increase public awareness and preparedness.

“We hope this study will increase people’s awareness of wildfire risk,” Clark said. “Most people think of wildfire as just a problem in the West, but wildfire now impacts large swaths of the country—the Northwest down to the Southwest, but also parts of the Midwest and Southeast like Appalachia and Florida.”

As climate change continues to escalate, citizens must be as mindful of the risks as policymakers and city planners, according to Clark. “When you’re looking for a place to live on Zillow or through real estate agents, many don’t highlight that you’re looking at a fire-prone region, or a place where summer heat is expected to become extreme,” she concluded. “You have to do your research.”

View Article Sources
  1. Clark, Mahalia B., et al. “Flocking to Fire: How Climate and Natural Hazards Shape Human Migration across the United States.” Frontiers in Human Dynamics, vol. 4, 2022, doi:10.3389/fhumd.2022.886545