With Donald Trump announcing that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate accord, an international agreement to mitigate the effects of global warming, the topic of climate change has recently become a hot topic. (Pun intended.)
In response, more than 180 U.S. mayors and 10 governors have pledged to abide by the framework of the accords and push for further actions to combat rising global temperatures.
That got us wondering, where should you move to – or from – to best avoid the negative impact of climate change?
The Road Ahead
Fortunately, scientists have a rough sketch, based on the manmade climate changes they foresee in the coming decades.
Most of us tend to focus on the obvious: that fossil fuel emissions will continue to heat up the atmosphere, causing the polar icecaps to melt and sea levels to rise, ultimately swallowing low-lying coastal communities. But the accompanying and equally troublesome rising heat indexes, droughts, extreme precipitation, wildfires, flooding, tornadoes, category 4-5 hurricanes and even mosquito infestations may be of equal, or even greater, cause for concern, depending on your address.
To compound the challenge of selecting a climate refuge, some cities have established programs and infrastructure to address global warming, while others ignore the topic entirely.
“The cities impacted by sea-level rise are different than the cities where there will be increased risk of urban heat waves, which are different from the cities where their urban water supply reservoirs may start to dry up,” says Rob McDonald, lead scientist for global cities at The Nature Conservancy.
“Some cities have gone quite far in terms of planning for how to adapt to climate change risks, while others have not,” McDonald said.
Flock to These 5 Cities
What’s your best weather move? We polled several climate experts to assemble SpareFoot’s Flock or Flee Index.
For the majority of the country that does not hug a coast, one significant climate change challenge is what scientists call the “urban heat island” effect. While cities naturally tend to be hotter than their surrounding countryside, research by Climate Central finds that summers have not only been getting hotter since the seventies, but cities have been getting hotter still than their rural surrounds.
“Heat waves are becoming hotter, so those who dislike heat might think seriously about air conditioning or moving poleward or upward,” suggests Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University.
Burlington may fare better than most northeast destinations where urban heat is concerned, being situated high on a hillside on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain and somewhat temperate in summer. Added bonus: Burlington boasts a Vermont-worthy climate action plan.
Scientists aren’t high on characterizing best and worst cities where climate change is concerned, but when pressed, many agree with University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass that the Pacific Northwest offers “a potential climate refuge.”
“Temperatures will rise more slowly than most of the nation due to the Pacific Ocean, we’ll have plenty of precipitation, the Pacific Ocean will keep heat waves in check and we don’t get hurricanes,” he explains. Plus, hilly Seattle and environs are well above predicted sea-level rise and boasts a rock-solid climate action plan.
At a mile high, Denver obviously faces little threat from sea-level rise. That said, scientists predict its future will be tested by drought, wildfires and potential stress on its power grid.
But one thing Denver truly excels at is planning. In fact, its climate change initiative includes monitoring its progress against targets set on a one-, three- and five-year basis.
Cities that plan now for trouble later rank high with Notre Dame environmental researcher Sierra Woodruff.
“Communities that don’t have that ability to prepare will kind of be on the front lines, where an electric bill increased by change in air temperature might mean a meal skipped,” she predicts.
At first glance, this oceanfront hamlet on the Kenai Peninsula might seem headed underwater. But surprise: many models predict lower sea-level rise here, as well as a longer growing season due to warmer temperatures and increased precipitation. Add a solid climate action plan drafted in 2006 and Homer could well feel like home by mid-century.
“The best place really is Alaska,” University of Hawaii geologist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”
San Francisco, California
If left unaddressed, San Francisco’s oceanfront location could prove troublesome for the City by the Bay. Maybe that’s why this notoriously green city has braced itself with both a world-class climate action plan and an ocean beach master plan that includes a managed retreat from low-lying areas as well.
Richard Alley is bullish on hilly San Francisco’s future. “Sea-level rise brings problems for coastal regions, especially for low ones, but if you live at the top of a rocky cliff, you’re safer than if you live on a low shore,” he says. See below.
Flee From These 5 Cities
The next five cities are likely to face some of the harshest effects of climate change over the next century, whether do to their geographic location or lack of advanced planning.
Headed to Miami for summer vacay? Enjoy it now!
According to a 2016 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, 13 million Americans will be impacted by sea-level rise by 2100, with 1.9 million displaced in Miami alone.
Is Miami truly ground zero for climate change in America?
“Yes, either Miami or the Florida Keys,” says Carolyn Cox, coordinator with the Florida Climate Institute at the University of Florida. “Both will be underwater but the assets in Miami will create much larger losses. A recent study of 40 U.S. cities that will suffer the worst impact from sea-level contained 18 cities in Florida.”
If you thought a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean might not be the ideal place to confront climate change, you’re right. According to one international study, Hawaii will not only be slammed hard by sea-level rise, but it’s longtime nemeses, tropical typhoons, will become stronger and last longer.
But what really cements Honolulu’s position on our Flee List? It has no climate action plan whatsoever.
New Orleans, Louisiana
What chance does a coastal city built largely below sea level stand against the predicted sea-level rise of climate change? Sadly, we already received a preview in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. Little wonder that Weather.com places the Big Easy at the top of its Climate Disruption Index among the 25 U.S. cities that will be most affected by climate change.
Population: 1.5 million
Forget water rise; Phoenix will face extreme versions of its three longtime foes – heat, drought and wildfires – along with a new threat: swarms of disease-carrying mosquitos.
“Evaporation is faster in a warmer world, so drought can set in faster and vegetation can dry out faster,” explains Alley. “That has implications for agriculture and for fire hazards to people living ‘out in the woods’ or anywhere else that there is burnable material.”
Sierra Woodruff says Boston may already be previewing its climate change challenge.
“They’ve already experienced an increase of 20 percent in heavy participation events and there’s potentially the increase in flooding,” she says. “Rising temperatures are also a problem in the Northeast because all of those communities might not have wide use of air conditioning.”
While the number of U.S. hurricanes is expected to remain the same, the bad news for Boston and the Northeast is that the number of strong Cat 4 and 5 hurricanes is not only expected to double by 2100, but peak farther north.
Bean Town will also face its own special threat from sea-level rise.
“Boston is very interesting because a lot of Boston is ‘fill’ (created by fill dirt),” Woodruff explains. “That’s an area that is now most vulnerable to sea-level rise.”