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NEXT: Climate Migration

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Climate Migration
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Reports of enormous wildfires in the western U.S. have become an annual event, as has the continuing drought. What was alarming this summer was the announcement that, for the first time in history, the federal government has declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, a major reservoir on the Colorado River and the source of water for a significant part of the American Southwest. Arizona farmers will be the first to see curtailments in their access to water, but soon enough millions will see cuts in their water supplies.

Persistent fires and lack of water will not render the western U.S. uninhabitable: there will still be people living in these areas, as there have been for centuries. But especially as a result of the lack of water, more and more people will find this part of the country inhospitable, and thus will seek to move to other parts of the country that are more ecologically inviting.

The Midwest may very well be the destination of choice for these “climate migrants,” drawn to the relatively more habitable climate than the persistent, 100-degree temperatures, the habitual fires and the lack of water they leave behind.

The period after WWII, and especially in the 1970s, saw a major population shift from the Northeast to the South and Southwest, that region of the country identified as the Sun Belt. Because of the effects of climate change, we may very well see a similar population shift, from the southwest to the Midwest: reverse migration from the Sun Belt.  

A series of maps produced by the Rhodium Group, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine anticipates that by 2040, the effects of climate change will be felt across the country, not only along the coasts. Under a RCP 4.5 scenario, meaning a moderate carbon emissions scenario, the most suitable climate “niche” will shift toward the Midwest. Indeed, “by 2070 much of the Southeast becomes less suitable and the niche shifts toward the Midwest.” Under the more extreme RCP 8.5 scenario, “the niche moves sharply toward Canada, leaving much of the lower half of the U.S. too hot or dry for the type of climate humans historically have lived in.” Under the extreme scenario, some places in Arizona, for example, could see temperatures above 95 for half the year.  

Under both the moderate and extreme scenarios, the Midwest will likely see an increase in agricultural yields; places like North Dakota will see longer growing seasons, while the Southeast, especially places like “Texas and Oklahoma may see yields drop by more than 70%.” The large populations that have clustered in cities such as Austin, Dallas and San Antonio might begin to shrink, with these populations shifting northward to cities in the relatively more economically and ecologically sustainable Midwest.  

One scenario, then, is that the Midwest expands its population, reversing a decades-long decline. Cities such as Columbus will see an even greater influx of population: MORPC has predicted that the Central Ohio population could reach 3 million by 2050, and the arrival of climate migrants might be the driver of such a change. But people might also settle in Indianapolis, Des Moines, Minneapolis and a host of other cities as they depopulate Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Consider the agricultural production in California, especially the Imperial Valley. With a drier, hotter climate, agriculture in this region becomes untenable. With a relatively stable water supply, the Midwest could very well assert its prominence as the major agricultural center of the U.S. (Might we even grow almonds here?) 

We should not assume that the Midwest will be a climate paradise in these scenarios, however. The Midwest, especially along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, will see dramatic increases in heat and humidity. 

“By midcentury…Missouri will feel like Louisiana does today, while some areas we don’t usually think of as humid, like southwestern Arizona, will see soaring wet bulb temperatures because of factors like sun angle, wind speed and cloud cover reacting to high temperatures.” Excessive wet bulb temperatures will make it difficult to carry out a host of activities out of doors. Such disruptions of daily life will likely be a regular occurrence.  

In response, states in the South and Southwest might seek to transport water from the Great Lakes and other water-rich areas in the Midwest. The technology would not be difficult to produce: a system of pipelines not unlike those that transport oil across the country could be easily built. Currently, regulations forbid cities outside of the Great Lakes from using this water. And it may be that by 2040 Midwestern governors are not at all disposed to share their precious resource with their counterparts in drier, inhospitable climates. There will no doubt be legal battles of claims to Midwestern water that reveal underlying sectional tensions.  

This sectionalism might also be reflected in policies aimed at keeping climate migrants away. My scenario suggesting a population shift from South to Midwest assumes that these climate migrants will be welcomed. The movement of Americans to the Southwest in the 1970s was otherwise unproblematic: Americans are free to travel and live wherever they like. Such freedom of movement is not always the practice: compare to China, where people endure greater restrictions on their movement. One cannot just simply up and move to a new place without government approval. It is possible that, 20 years from now, Midwestern states will impose travel bans or other measures to keep climate migrants out, or to be very selective about which ones will be allowed to resettle. This would reflect, of course, a dramatic change in our political culture: that there is much sectional distrust that the Americans are no longer able to move freely about the country.  

These scenarios must be viewed in context, of course. The appeal of the Midwest from an environmental point of view must be understood against the backdrop of a planet that would become more and more inhospitable over wide areas. Climate migrants would not only be moving from the American South as they would from the Global South, and all of the accompanying geopolitical turmoil that would result.

When I suggest that the Midwest would be an attractive location for climate migrants from the South, I mean that it would be the lesser of two very bad options.  

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists. 

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