Portland Will Still Be Cool, but Anchorage May Be the Place to Be
On a Warmer Planet, Which Cities Will Be Safest?
By JENNIFER A. KINGSONSEPT. 22, 2014
Alaskans, stay in Alaska. People in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, sit tight.
Scientists trying to predict the consequences of climate change say that they see few havens from the storms, floods and droughts that are sure to intensify over the coming decades. But some regions, they add, will fare much better than others.
Forget most of California and the Southwest (drought, wildfires). Ditto for much of the East Coast and Southeast (heat waves, hurricanes, rising sea levels). Washington, D.C., for example, may well be a flood zone by 2100, according to an estimate released last week.
Instead, consider Anchorage. Or even, perhaps, Detroit.
“If you do not like it hot and do not want to be hit by a hurricane, the options of where to go are very limited,” said Camilo Mora, a geography professor at the University of Hawaii and lead author of a paper published in Nature last year predicting that unprecedented high temperatures will become the norm worldwide by 2047.
“The best place really is Alaska,” he added. “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”
Under any model of climate change, scientists say, most of the country will look and feel drastically different in 2050, 2100 and beyond, even as cities and states try to adapt and plan ahead. The northern Great Plains states may well be pleasant (if muggy) for future generations, as may many neighboring states. Although few people today are moving long distances to strategize for climate change, some are at least pondering the question of where they would go.
“The answer is the Pacific Northwest, and probably especially west of the Cascades,” said Ben Strauss, vice president for climate impacts and director of the program on sea level rise at Climate Central, a research collaboration of scientists and journalists. “Actually, the strip of coastal land running from Canada down to the Bay Area is probably the best,” he added. “You see a lot less extreme heat; it’s the one place in the West where there’s no real expectation of major water stress, and while sea level will rise there as everywhere, the land rises steeply out of the ocean, so it’s a relatively small factor.”
Clifford E. Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, writes a popular weather blog in which he predicts that the Pacific Northwest will be “a potential climate refuge” as global warming progresses. A Seattle resident, he foresees that “climate change migrants” will start heading to his city and to Portland, Ore., and surrounding areas.
“The Pacific Ocean is like our natural air conditioning,” Professor Mass said in a telephone interview. “We don’t get humidity like the East Coast does.”
As for the water supply? “Water is important, and we will have it,” Professor Mass declared. “All in all, it’s a pretty benign situation for us — in fact, warming up just a little bit might be a little bit welcome around here.”
Already, he said, Washington State is gearing up to become the next Napa Valley as California’s wine country heats up and dries out.
“People are going crazy putting in vineyards in eastern Washington right now,” he said.
There may be other refuges to the east. Don’t count out the elevated inland cities in the country’s midsection, like Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee and Detroit, said Matthew E. Kahn, a professor of environmental economics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I predict we’re going to have millions of people moving to those areas,” he said in a telephone interview.
In his 2010 book “Climatopolis,” Professor Kahn predicts that when things get bad enough in any given location — not just the temperatures and extreme weather, but also the cost of insurance and so forth — people will become “environmental refugees,” fleeing cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego. By 2100, he writes, Detroit will be one of the nation’s most desirable cities.
That assertion came as a surprise to Rachel Burnside-Saltmarshall, a former president of the Detroit Association of Realtors.
“I haven’t come across that,” Ms. Burnside-Saltmarshall said diplomatically, adding that there were more immediate municipal concerns. “Like crime — tell me when that’s going to go down.”
A report by United Van Lines looking at relocation trends in 2013 found that its customers were moving primarily for economic reasons — a new job, lower costs of living — or quality-of-life considerations that were not climate related, such as public transit or green space. Coincidentally, Oregon — a predicted climate-change winner — topped the list of inbound moves, followed by South Carolina, North Carolina, the District of Columbia and South Dakota. The top states for outbound moves were New Jersey, Illinois, New York, West Virginia and Connecticut.
“What we see is that people are actually moving into harm’s way,” said Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. “They’re moving from relatively safe places in the Midwest to places along the Florida coast, where the risk has been increasing.”
In May, Miami was named one of the nation’s most vulnerable cities in the National Climate Assessment, the third in a series of federal reports on how global warming will play out across the country. The week the report was released, Miami Beach residents were wading through ankle-deep waters on some of their main thoroughfares.
As sea levels rise in the decades ahead, said Professor Mass of the University of Washington, “if there’s ground zero for where you don’t want to be, Florida is it.” Other particularly vulnerable places are the low-lying cities of the East and Gulf Coasts, he noted.
As for New York City, the nation’s most populous city, Professor Mora at the University of Hawaii projects that 2047 will be the “year of climate change departure” — when weather that seems extraordinarily hot and catastrophic by today’s standards will become the norm.
“The coasts are all going to be facing very hot temperatures,” Professor Mora said. Washington, D.C., will reach its tipping point the same year, under his model; Los Angeles has until 2048; San Francisco, 2049 and Chicago, 2052. Detroit has until 2051, and Anchorage, 2071.
Some climate experts are optimistic that major cities will plan, adapt and ward off catastrophe. “New York has such a concentration of wealth and assets that I expect we will invest to defend the region from sea level rise and flooding, and there’s already movement in that direction,” said Mr. Strauss of Climate Central, a New York City resident.
But even in the places that are expected to come out ahead, the picture does not look entirely rosy.
“Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma — the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” said Dr. Peterson of NOAA, citing the 2009 National Climate Assessment. “You build houses differently in Minnesota versus Oklahoma, you lay railroad tracks differently.”
All in all, Dr. Peterson said, the changes will be highly disruptive, particularly over time. “We often talk about the climate from now ’til the end of this century, because that’s kind of a nice model,” he said, “But it’s not going to end there — it’s going to keep changing.”