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As sea levels rise, where will all the people go?

Kendra Pierre-Louis, Popular Science on April 17, 2017

Shishmaref, Alaska. Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The Outer Banks, North Carolina. These are the locales often trotted out to represent the vast swathes of the United States teetering towards inhabitability due to rising sea level caused by climate change. These places and their people have become the canaries in the coal mine, launching a thousand news stories and capturing popular imagination. But a study released today in the journal Nature Climate Change warns that we spend too much time focused on the people that rising sea levels will displace and not enough time focused on where they will go. And that’s a problem.

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, Houston’s population swelled with 250,000 people from the Gulf Coast—and ultimately, 100,000 of those new residents chose to remain. The city struggled with relocation services and other hiccups associated with absorbing a large population. And the difficulties created a toxic attitude towards those who emigrated to Houston from the Gulf Coast: as recently as 2014, Texas Rep. Dennis Bonnen used a slur to refer to Cajun children who were victims of Katrina. As sea levels rise, this kind of relocation is poised to happen again and again across the country. And if we aren't careful, these inland safe havens might not be any better equipped than Houston was.

The study, done by University of Georgia geographer Matther Hauer, tries to bridge that knowledge gap, estimating not only where people might flee from in the future but also where they could conceivably go. An earlier study by Hauer had found that thirteen million Americans—many of them in the southeast—are directly at risk of relocation due to sea level rise. This gave Hauer the number of people who would be migrating, and where they'd come from—but not where they would go.

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