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Americans are still migrating to wildfire-prone areas

Climate change has led many people to migrate both within their own countries and across borders. Although climate migration is often considered as a problem of the Global South, a team of researchers led by the University of Vermont (UVM) has recently investigated the relation between the climate crisis and patterns of migration across the United States.

The experts have found that, although the U.S. has recently experienced many destructive weather events that have killed many people and done billions of dollars of damage, an increasing number of Americans are currently moving to regions at serious risk of wildfires.

“Our original motivation was the increasing number of headlines each year about record breaking heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires,” said study lead author Mahalia Clark, an environmental scientist at UVM. “I had been studying natural amenities – features of the climate and environment that are attractive to movers – but I began to wonder if the threat of these hazards might have a deterring effect on migration.”

The researchers created a dataset which combined census data from 2010-2020 with data on temperature, weather, landscape, demographic variables, and socioeconomic factors, with a particular focus on natural amenities.

The analysis revealed that economic factors played a larger role in migration patterns than natural amenities. Moreover, people in the U.S. appeared to move away from areas with frequent hurricanes but towards regions with higher temperatures and wildfire risk.

“This suggests that people may be drawn to the very landscapes that are most prone to wildfires, which is concerning given that wildfires are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change,” said Clark. “We also found increased migration into metropolitan areas with relatively hot summers, where heat will grow deadlier with climate change.”

Some limitations of this study include the lack of data on factors such as family ties, professional networks, housing value, and living costs, which also play major roles in migration decisions. In addition, there is still no data available on how the rise of remote work may impact people’s choices about where they live.

“I hope our work will increase people’s awareness of their exposure to wildfires. Americans tend to think of wildfires as something affecting the west, but they are also a threat across large swaths of the south and even Midwest. Our findings highlight the need for policymakers in affected areas to prioritize sufficient firefighting and fire prevention resources for a growing population, to increase public awareness and preparedness, and perhaps even to discourage new development in areas where fires are most likely or most difficult to fight,” Clark concluded.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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