A recent UN report found that global temperatures could rise to catastrophic levels by 2040, resulting in extreme droughts, heatwaves, sea levels, and even mass extinctions. The damage of these events could trigger a $US54 trillion economic loss and forced migrations around the world.
2017 was a record year for natural disasters in the US, with 16 severe weather events causing at least $US306 billion in damages. While 2018 portends to be less destructive, it has already seen its fair share of catastrophe: As of July 9, six storms have each generated at least $US1 billion in losses.
To figure out what areas are least vulnerable to natural disaster in the future, we asked 11 climatologists where they would consider living to avoid climate change. All were quick to note that no area is entirely safe, but a few cities could be less vulnerable than most.
Scientists are still working to define the relationship between climate change and natural disasters. In the last ten to 15 years, they have found evidence of the mounting influence of climate change on major events like heat waves, droughts, and heavy rains.
In fact, climate change may already be impacting where Americans choose to move. A recent study found that American homes that are vulnerable to rising sea levels sell for around 7% less than similar unexposed properties – even though the damage could be decades away.
The following cities were recommended by climatologists as some of the least vulnerable to disaster.
Cities that are not currently in danger of flooding from sea level rise will be safe in the future, while places like Miami could see their flooding intensify, said Richard Alley, a climate science professor at Pennsylvania State University. Beyond that, Alley said, it’s difficult to predict what may happen.
One city he does regard as safe from sea level rise is Tulsa, Oklahoma. At worst, he said, the global sea level could increase by 4 to 5 meters in the next 100 years if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses rapidly. Even in this scenario, Tulsa is likely to remain standing.
In addition to its locational advantage, Tulsa has gone to great lengths to protect itself from major flooding. Following a devastating storm in 1984, the city installed a number of detention ponds, which retain water in the wake of a storm, and paid to either transport or destroy around 1,000 homes that had been damaged. As a result, its flood insurance rates went from the highest in the nation to among the lowest.
Two of the top criteria for avoiding sea level rise are high elevation and location in the middle of the country, said Camilo Mora, an associate professor who researches biodiversity at the University of Hawaii. In the event of a disaster, Mora said residents should look for places where they can live self-sufficiently, with their own agricultural system and body of water that doesn’t depend on melting ice.
While Mora didn’t identify a city that meets each of these criteria, Boulder, Colorado seems to fit the bill. In addition to being seated far away from the coast, Boulder has an altitude of more than 5,300 feet, making it less vulnerable to a rise in sea level.
The city has also taken to carefully monitoring its water usage to account for changes in the weather. Even if the city expands to reach its limit, officials have found, it will own enough water rights to meet residents’ demands through 2030.
San Diego, California
San Diego may be exposed to rising sea levels, but its coastal location gives it a host of advantages. According to research from Sarah Kapnick, a climate scientist at Princeton University, San Diego may have the most ideal weather of any US city.
After studying the number of “mild weather” days – those suited for outdoor activities, with low precipitation, low humidity, and temperatures between 64 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit – Kapnick found that US summers are becoming hotter and more humid. By the end of the century, she discovered, cities in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico could lose weeks of mild weather due to climate change.
This wasn’t the case in San Diego, which currently boasts 180 days of mild weather per year compared to 157 in Los Angeles, 83 in New York, and just 76 in Boston. In the future, the city could see even more pristine weather conditions.
Kapnick’s study predicts that San Diego will gain three mild days per year by the end of the century. Perhaps the main concern for San Diego is a loss of precipitation, which can contribute to wildfires. That’s a major worry, but one that nearly all California cities will have to face.
Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota
Minneapolis may be known for its harsh winters, but it’s not likely to get much colder than it is now, said David Robinson, the New Jersey State Climatologist and a professor at Rutgers University.
According to Robinson, Minneapolis could be ideal for those looking to avoid the harshest effects of climate change.
While Minneapolis may be susceptible to droughts and thunderstorms, its northern, inland location makes it less vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Hurricanes are among the most destructive of natural disasters, affecting sizable populations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic seaboard.
In the future, Robinson predicts, Minneapolis summers will also avoid persistent heat.
California’s sea level rise is less of a concern as you move up the north coast, said Michael Anderson, the state climatologist at California’s Department of Water Resources. That’s good news for Sacramento, a city less than two hours outside San Francisco that’s developing strategies to prepare for the effects of climate change.
According to Vivek Shandas, an urban-planning professor at Portland State University, Sacramento ranks among the cities that are least vulnerable to climate-induced disasters.
When it comes to the cumulative effects of hurricanes, sea level rise, tornadoes, flooding, droughts, landslides, and wildfires, he said, Sacramento should have fewer concerns than most cities.
Charlotte, North Carolina
While North Carolina has witnessed its fair share of hurricanes, Louisiana state climatologist Barry Keim singles out Charlotte as the least vulnerable city when it comes to the overall effects of climate change.
That’s because the area is far enough inland to avoid the worst of the Atlantic hurricane season, which could get worse with climate change. The city’s climate is also mild, with a mean annual temperature of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. While most cities are getting hotter as a result of climate change, Charlotte has actually begun to cool down over time.
For those unwilling to give up on a coastal property, Portland may be the ideal locale. Compared to other coastal states, Oregon has less property risk and less physical area exposed to sea level rise, said Kristy Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
It’s also less vulnerable to hurricanes compared to cities along the eastern and gulf coasts, said Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at UCS.
Though he travels to dozens of cities each year, Shandas said few cities rival Portland’s ability to withstand major climate-induced events. These findings are echoed by a 2011 report from Portland State University, which predicts that the Willamette Valley will become a refuge for those looking to escape the harsh effects of climate change.
In 1993, Portland became the first US city to devise a plan for cutting carbon, vowing to reduce local carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The city is also a recipient of the C40 Cities award, which recognises the world’s most inspiring and innovative cities tackling climate change.
“It’s somewhat ironic that the Midwest … has seen a reduction in population in recent decades,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and a professor at Texas A&M University. “Not only will the Midwest avoid many of the bad effects of climate change, it will experience most of the good effects: less extreme cold and a longer growing season.”
One city that benefits from these conditions is Pittsburgh, a place Nielsen-Gammon describes as “safe from hurricanes” and unlikely to experience increased drought. Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh City Council approved an ambitious new climate plan, which imitates Portland’s goal to reduce carbon emissions.
Anywhere but Hawaii
It’s nearly impossible to predict which cities are immune to a hurricane or tropical cyclone, said Hiro Murakami, an associate research scholar at Princeton who studies these phenomena. That’s why he cautions against making any recommendations for places to live – except to warn people about moving to the Hawaiian Islands.
Murakami’s scepticism is warranted. While a few of the climate scientists we surveyed preferred the same city, their responses tended to vary.
“There is no one-size-fits-all [prediction] when it pertains to climate change,” said Caldas. “One may move away from the coast, only to find that inland floods are a problem. One may move from the south seeking cooler climates only to be hit by extreme precipitation, or drought, or wildfires. Each person or community needs to weigh all the factors carefully and choose their level of risk-taking.”
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