Equilibrium & Sustainability — Altria

Fleeing from hurricanes, Americans are ‘flocking to fire,’ study finds

Waves crash on the shoreline along the Jensen Beach Causeway, as conditions deteriorate with the approach of Hurricane Nicole, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Jensen Beach, Fla.
Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
File – Waves crash on the shoreline along the Jensen Beach Causeway, as conditions deteriorate with the approach of Hurricane Nicole, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Jensen Beach, Fla.

Americans are fleeing from many of the U.S. counties hit hardest by hurricanes and heatwaves — only to find themselves facing dangerous wildfires and warmer temperatures, a new study has found.

The 10-year national study, published in Frontiers in Human Dynamics, investigated how natural disasters, climate change and other factors have been driving American migration. 

As people seek refuge from hurricane zones, they are “flocking to fire” — moving to regions with the greatest risk of wildfires and significant summer heat, the researchers observed. 

“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,” lead author Mahalia Clark, a graduate fellow in environment at the University of Vermont, said in a statement.

The inspiration for their study was the increasing number of headlines about record-breaking natural disasters, according to Clark.

“Our goal was to understand how extreme weather is influencing migration as it becomes more severe with climate change,” she said.

Clark and her colleagues identified several top U.S. migration destinations by combining census data from 2010-2020 with data on temperature, weather, landscape, demographic variables and socioeconomic factors. 

The most popular spots, they found, were cities and suburbs in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Southwest — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah — as well as Texas, Florida and a swath of the Southeast, from Nashville to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. 

Many of these locations already face considerable wildfire risks and relatively warm annual temperatures, according to the study. 

In contrast, the authors saw that people tended to move away from areas in the Midwest, the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River — including many counties that have been worst hit by hurricanes or frequent heatwaves. 

“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,” co-author Gillian Galford, a research associate professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, said in a statement. 

“That same type of tipping point has yet to happen for wildfires and rising summer heat,” she added.

Galford attributed this discrepancy to the fact that wildfires and summer heat have “only become problems at the national level more recently.”

One implication of the study, according to the authors, is that city planners may need to consider discouraging new development in fire-prone areas. 

At minimum, they suggested that policymakers consider integrating fire prevention efforts in areas of high risk with sizable growth in human populations. 

The study includes several maps that highlight the severity of national hazards across the country — information that the researchers said they hope will help inform public awareness. 

Most real estate websites “don’t highlight that you’re looking at a fire-prone region,” Clark said, noting, however, that the site Redfin recently added risk scores to listings. 

“You have to do your research,” she continued.

While most people still think that wildfires are just a problem of the West, many other areas of the country — including the Midwest and the Southeast — have become more affected by such conditions, Clark warned. 

The analysis revealed a common set of traits shared among top migration destinations: warmer winters, proximity to water, moderate tree cover, moderate population density and better human development index scores — as well as wildfire risks.

Common qualities in the regions people left included low employment, higher income inequality and more summer humidity, heatwaves and hurricanes, according to the study. 

One interesting outlier that the authors found was Florida, where many people — especially retirees — are still attracted to the area despite the hurricane risks. 

“The decision to move is a complicated and personal decision that involves weighing dozens of factors,” Clark said. 

“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,” she added.

Tags American migration Arizona Atlanta Climate change Colorado fire prevention Florida Frontiers in Human Dynamics Gillian Galford human population hurricanes Mahalia Clark nashville natural disasters Nevada new development real estate Texas Utah Washington D.C. wildfires

Most Popular

Load more