Climate Change Study: Rising Seas Might Displace 13 Million People

A new study on climate change gave a dire prediction for the costs of relocation, especially in Florida, where sea rise threatens a large part of the state. Some people are already relocating; more, maybe millions, will likely have to join them.

The most recent study is novel because it combines estimates for population growth with projected sea rise levels from climate science. In the worst case scenario, which the researchers put at six feet of sea rise, roughly 13 million people will be at risk, far more than previous estimates. About 25 percent of that population is from just two counties in Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward.

That puts Florida on the front-lines of climate change policy. In Miami Beach, the signs are already present, with high tide bringing sea water into driveways. The city has elevated eight roads, according to Politico Magazine, and officials have built six new sea walls and installed massive water pumps to redirect the sea.

Buttonwood trees are dying because of salt from sea rise in South Florida. They're quickly being replaced by Mangrove trees. [Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

The effort cost about $100 million, but more will have to be done. In the end, the investments in Miami Beach will be just a drop in the bucket. The total cost of relocating or insulating the millions of people at risk will cost an estimated $14 trillion. Those cost estimates are based on villages in Alaska, which are already working to relocate.

According to the New York Times, eroding native Alaskan villages could become the national models for relocation, and the village of Newtok may start off the exodus. They’re seeking about $62 million in federal grants to build infrastructure improvements and move 62 families roughly nine miles inland. Three other villages — Emmonak, Galena and Teller — are also vulnerable to sea rise in the short-term and are seeking $162 million.

Many more will have to move according to the new study’s author, Mathew Hauer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, who said “we could see a huge-scale migration if we don’t deploy any protection against sea level rise.”

The high costs are alarming, especially on a large-scale, but some researchers claim the new study is too dire.

Sea-level rise expert Benjamin H. Strauss says the study is a bit too static in its assumptions.

“Current development patterns through the rest of the century seems like an unlikely future, because as sea levels continue to rise and coastal problems become glaringly obvious, coastal development and real estate will have to change.”

For Florida’s home-owners, that’s also a scary prediction, indicating that coastal homes will lose their value long before they lose their yards. Others in rural communities fear that policymakers will concentrate too much on cities and forget all about them.

Protesters demanding greater action on climate change in the People's Climate March in New York. [Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images]

Duck, North Carolina, is one of those places, according to MSN. The 369-person town is already joining with neighboring hamlets to replenish sand lost on beaches every five years. As the sea levels rise, that will need to happen more often.

Layton, the Duck town manager, believes the costs of the sea rise can handled smoothly with enough planning, but then the increasing storm damage is an issue.

“I don’t think we have a lot of climate deniers in Duck. We’re not trying to scare people. We’re just trying to tell people, this is what we know, and this is how we’re trying to approach it.”

The full study on sea rise and its particularly harsh effects on Florida will appear in the journal Nature Climate Change.

[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]