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Global sea levels have risen almost nine inches since 1870, driven by the thermal expansion of ocean water and the melting of glaciers as the planet warms. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this climate-related trend is accelerating, with enormous implications for coastal communities.

Much of the research on this subject has focused on broad patterns, such as how much land and how many people are at risk of being flooded out. These analyses typically focus on regional, national or global scales.

“When you examine large geographic scales, you are masking a lot of important heterogeneity in the population,” says Katherine Curtis, an associate professor of community and environmental sociology. “Social, economic and political vulnerability are masked.”

Curtis teamed with Annemarie Schneider, an associate professor of environmental studies and fellow scientist in the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, to model sea level rise and population dynamics at a county scale. That allowed them to consider demographic factors such as age, sex and racial composition of communities.

“We know that some populations, because of political, social, economic and environmental conditions, have greater vulnerability than others,” Curtis explains.

Their study highlighted four areas: southern Florida, coastal South Carolina, northern New Jersey and the Sacramento Valley of California. They looked at the social dynamics of these places, including who was moving where, because past disasters had shown these to be critical factors.

For example, Hurricane Katrina highlighted the social inequalities of disaster prevention and recovery. Affluent people could afford to evacuate and later rebuild; poorer people could not. The researchers are trying to predict where similar problems will occur with rising waters.

“People who are vulnerable and displaced tend to move to equally vulnerable places,” says Curtis. “Think about it: What is affordable and what is accessible? And what determines affordability and accessibility?”

Affordable neighborhoods are often potentially in harm’s way, she explains. So it may be a challenge for these climate refugees to afford housing outside the reach of future sea level rise.

But wherever these climate refugees end up, whether temporarily or permanently, more problems are likely to follow.

“The thing that is most interesting to me is migration,” says Curtis. “What happens in one place doesn’t just affect that location. Migration moves us into a conversation about not just the places that are hit, but how environmental events affect society at large.”

Southern Florida is one of the areas expected to be most socially and environmentally vulnerable to sea level rise. Today, when people leave the Miami area, many of them move to either New York or Los Angeles. Based on those patterns, New York and Los Angeles can expect a big influx of people as rising seas encroach on Miami.

That can overwhelm labor markets in their new locations, driving down wages. Housing, food supplies and education might be strained, along with other urban resources, for people who are already going through a very rough time.

“These are people that are likely to be exposed to traumatic losses,” says Curtis, “not only of property, but of friends and family. So you’re dealing with mental health issues and vulnerability. Then, if you’re talking about people that are economically disadvantaged, you’re putting trauma on top of distress.”

Such factors are only made worse if people aren’t accepted into their new communities, so Curtis is also studying how hospitable these destinations may be to new residents.

“The worst-case scenario is an unprepared community receiving a new population that is unlike them and perceived as a threat,” she says. “Then there’s the potential for a lot of inequality, tension and turmoil.”

Curtis’s ultimate goal is to identify and communicate these potential challenges and provide cities with the data they need to create contingency plans before sea level rise brings these problems.

This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer issue of In Common magazine.

 Photo courtesy of Dawn Ellner.