This Yahoo News series analyzes different regions around the U.S. in terms of climate change risks that they face now and will experience in the years to come.
As the negative consequences of rising global temperatures due to humankind's relentless burning of fossil fuels become more and more apparent in communities across the United States, anxiety over finding a place to live safe from the ravages of climate change has also been on the rise.
“Millions and likely tens of millions of Americans” will move because of climate through the end of the century, Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at the Tulane School of Architecture, told Yahoo News. “People move because of school districts, affordability, job opportunities. There are a lot of drivers, and I think it’s probably best to think about this as climate is now one of those drivers.”
Yet for those fortunate enough to have the financial resources to even contemplate it, uprooting one’s life and moving to a place thought to be safer from a climate change perspective is a bet based on probability, and one that has no real guarantees.
“No place is immune from climate change impacts, certainly in the continental United States, and throughout the U.S. those impacts will be quite severe," Keenan said. "They will be more severe in some places and less severe in other places. Certain places will be more moderate in terms of temperature and some places will be more extreme, but we all share the risk of the increase of extreme events.”
Scientifically speaking, of course, there is no real mystery as to what is behind the decades-long uptick of extreme heat waves, increased wildfire activity, worsening drought severity, rising sea levels and record-setting rainfall events that are conspiring to rewrite our understanding about where we can be assured safe haven from natural disasters and the changing environment.
In April, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institution of Ocean Oceanography showed that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, was 27% higher than it was 50 years ago. As a result, the so-called greenhouse effect has gotten more pronounced and global temperatures have been rising at a faster clip (they were 2.5°F above average in the U.S. this summer, according to NOAA), amplifying the consequences that study after study has linked to climate change.
For years, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists has been that humans are causing temperatures to rise and that, short of an enforceable global agreement to dramatically cut emissions, the reverberations of that fact will continue to worsen. In late October, a report by the United Nations concluded that the world was on track to warm by 2.1°C to 2.9°C by the year 2100. As a result, the world can expect a dramatic rise in chaotic, extreme weather events.
But how and when global warming will manifest itself in a given community depends on a dizzying number of factors that include luck, latitude, elevation, the rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, the upkeep of infrastructure, long-term climate patterns, the predictable behavior of the jet stream and how warming ocean waters may affect the frequency of El Niño/La Niña cycles.
That said, computer modeling that has accurately predicted many of the dire outcomes seen over the past several years offers some insight into what different regions of the U.S. can expect in the coming decades. And with each subsequent heat wave, fire season and crippling flash-flood event, the country is being offered a real-time preview of what lies ahead.
Some factors, such as the 1-foot average of sea level rise that a recent NOAA study has said is now unavoidable by the year 2050, or the steady increase in dangerously hot temperatures already being experienced during summer months can make picking a climate haven easier. But wild cards such as extreme rainfall events — which this summer alone have occurred in Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, California, Wyoming and Mississippi — illustrate that nothing is certain when it comes to living with climate change.
The following series breaks down the U.S. by region, looking at the risks, some predicted and others playing out already, that come with rising global temperatures.
While it is true, as Tulane’s Keenan noted, that “no place is immune from climate change impacts,” a 2020 analysis published by ProPublica and the New York Times of findings provided by the Rhodium Group, a data-analytics firm, ranked U.S. counties in terms of how well they will be protected from the risks posed by climate change.
The analysis included six major categories — heat stress, the combination of heat and humidity (wet bulb), crop loss, very large fires, sea-level rise and economic damages — and rated each county on the impact climate change would have on them given two emissions scenarios: high and moderate.
Based on those metrics, the Northeast came out ahead in a ranking of counties rated in terms of relative safety from the effects of a warming world. Six of the 10 best-rated U.S. counties were found in Vermont: Lamoille, Orange Franklin, Essex, Orleans and Grand Isle.
Maine had three counties — Piscataquis, Franklin and Aroostook — in the top 10, and New York had just one, Hamilton County.
With the exception of its coastline, which is highly vulnerable to sea level rise, the bulk of the Northeast was rated low in terms of overall climate risks. Eager to promote the findings, officials in places like Buffalo, N.Y., which lies on the far eastern banks of Lake Erie on the U.S. border with Canada, have even begun marketing the city as a “climate change refuge,” promoting a relatively low incidence of natural disasters and a long-term forecast of mild weather.
Still, inland parts of the region also face climate change risks. “Higher temperatures in the Northeast are likely to increase heat-related deaths and decrease air quality, especially in urban areas,” the Environmental Protection Agency states on its website about the larger region, which includes Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and the District of Columbia and is home to 64 million people.
“Between 1958 and 2012, the Northeast saw more than a 70% increase in the amount of rainfall measured during heavy precipitation events, more than in any other region in the United States,” the EPA also notes.
But according to the Rhodium Group findings, the Northeast’s relative risk profile remains lower than other parts of the country. It’s also unusually positioned to handle an influx of climate migrants. Several former industrial hubs across the region whose infrastructure was originally built for larger populations, and were then partially vacated as manufacturing moved elsewhere, seem like natural destinations, so long as they aren’t located along the coast.
Exacerbated by local land subsidence (sinking) along the Northeastern coastal regions, seas have already risen 1 ft since 1900 and could, depending on emissions scenarios, could rise by as much as another 21 inches by 2050, according to a recent NOAA study.
Cities like Boston and New York have already begun spending the billions of dollars that will be necessary to protect some neighborhoods from rising waters, erecting sea walls and berms that some critics have assailed as too little too late.
“I feel that we’re in a long-term denial and we are talking about resilience, but it’s unsustainable,” Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University who also serves on the NPCC, told Yahoo News in 2019 about New York’s effort to protect Lower Manhattan. “Sustainability is defined as doing something good for current generations without producing liabilities for future generations and that’s exactly what this is not. This provides more liabilities for future generations.”
The problem, however, is that relocating those already in harm’s way would represent a migration of unprecedented proportions.
"Millions of Northeastern residents live near coastlines and river floodplains, where they are potentially more vulnerable to these climate-related impacts," the EPA states on its website.
According to the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, a government funded website assessing U.S. global warming risks, "models predict that the [Northeast] region could see a warming of 4.5°F to 10°F by the 2080s (assuming the current rate of increase in emissions)." As those temperatures rise, the risks to the Northeast posed by storms like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy will also rise significantly.
“As you get north of New York, so you go up into Connecticut, and up towards Boston, will experience hurricanes — in some cases for the first time ever and much more frequently,” Josh Studholme, a physicist at Yale University and the author of a 2022 study that showed that the strength of hurricanes will continue to intensify in the Northeast thanks to climate change, said in a statement. “And because, you know, these communities that haven't developed with that risk in mind, this presents a significant risk for them.”
In August, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire all recorded their warmest month on record, according to NOAA. A 2011 study published in Nature Climate Change found that the Northeast has "emerged as a warming hotspot," heating up at a faster rate than other parts of North America due to warmer ocean waters and changes in atmospheric circulation patterns because of rising temperatures.
“Some of the biggest population centers in the U.S. are suffering the greatest degree of warming,” the study's lead author, Ambarish Karmalkar, a professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in a statement. “This warming is being driven both by equally rapid trends in the Atlantic Ocean and by changes in atmospheric circulation patterns.”
While that warming will, in turn, worsen sea level rise in the Northeast, thanks to increased evaporation rates and earlier snowmelt, it will also bring an increased risk of drought like the one occurring across much of the Northeast.
"Despite its typically temperate moist climate, the Northeast US frequently experiences short-term intense dry periods that can follow a period of normal to above-normal precipitation," NOAA's Climate Program Office states on its website. "Even with normal to above normal precipitation since the 1980s, the region is currently in an economically impactful drought."
At the same time, however, the atmosphere has been shown to hold 7% more moisture for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, exponentially raising the risks of extreme rainfall events that, with little or no warning, will test existing infrastructure like never before.
To be sure, synthesizing all of the volumes of data predicting how climate change will play out is no small task. Thanks to a score of 4 out of 10 in terms of humidity and likely economic damages related to climate change in the New York Times/ProPublic analysis of the Rhodium Group data, Erie County, N.Y., which contains the self-described "climate refuge" city of Buffalo, did not crack the top 300 highest-ranked counties in the U.S. Still, like the vast majority of counties located in the Northeast, it scored much better than those located in other parts of the country.