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Scientists project millions around the world will need to flee rising seas by 2100

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
November 22, 2017, 1:54:46 PM EST

Numerous environmental factors can force vulnerable communities to flee their homes. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, wildfires, extreme droughts or floods, may cause populations to temporarily depart from their homes.

However, climate impacts may increase the need for these vulnerable populations to move to safer areas indefinitely.

The Dust Bowl is the largest example of climate-induced migration in the United States. The Dust Bowl was a period of severe droughts, dust storms and wind erosion in the southern Plains region during the 1930s.

Severely damaged ecology and agricultural practices led to the migration of approximately 2.5 million people.

The Dust Bowl

Buried machinery in a barn lot in Dallas, South Dakota, during the Dust Bowl in May 1936.

Sea level rise is currently contributing to climate-related migrations, and the number of people affected is projected to increase.

Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population resides in coastal areas experiencing rapid population growth. These areas are likely to experience long-term exposure to flood risks.

Two papers published in 2016 and 2017 in the Nature Climate Change journal, both written or co-written with author Dr. Mathew Hauer, project the impacts of sea level rise on migratory patterns.

It is projected that sea level rise could lead to the displacement of 1.3 million to 11.7 million people in the U.S. by 2100 depending on the rate of sea level rise and population increase, according to the studies.

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It could cost up to $11.7 trillion to relocate these displaced populations based on costs associated with managed retreats.

In comparison to similar previous studies on sea level rise and migration, this study accounts for projected population size, according to Hauer.

"There is definitely some uncertainty whenever doing projections for nearly 100 years. However, we know for certainty that society will be different in the future, it is how much different that is the uncertainty," Hauer told AccuWeather.

sea level rise Alaska

This aerial photo shows the island village of Kivalina, an Alaska Native community of 400 people already receding into the ocean as a result of rising sea levels, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, in Kotzebue, Alaska. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Numerous U.S. communities are in the process of relocating to higher ground farther inland to escape from the rising sea, such as in Alaska and Louisiana.

In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants totaling $1 billion in 13 states to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, received a $48 million federal grant to resettle its residents because of flooding. The resettlement project was the first of its kind, making the tribal community the nation's first "climate migrants."

The disappearing coastlines threaten one of the most fundamental aspects of one's identity and place, environmental scientist Sandra Maina said in a 2016 TedxTalk about Isle de Jean Charles.

"Every human on this Earth forms an emotional bond with their place, thus making land quintessential to our identity. Most of us take land for granted that there will always be something beneath our feet to support every foot step that we take," Maina said.

However, for some communities there have been forces of nature that have been removing the land beneath their feet, Maina said.

isle de jean Charles

Isle de Jean Carles (Flickr/Karen Apricot)

Climate-induced migration is projected to increase significantly and is a trend that can be seen globally.

Salinity intrusion in Bangladesh is making it difficult for farmers to cultivate rice, and flooding in Kenya is killing livestock and destroying crops, according to the United Nations University.

"For us, climate change is real. We are already relocating people from 16 islands affected by rising seas to other areas of our country," Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed said to National Geographic in 2016.

Displaced communities are going to need some place to go, but there is currently no global plan in place.

The term "climate refugee" has been used in the media and by advocacy groups to define these communities. However, these people are not legally considered refugees.

"Refugee" is a legal term which has a very specific meaning centering on a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to The Refugee Convention of 1951.

Therefore, people leaving their countries due to climate stressors are not considered refugees. The Convention does not recognize the environment as a persecuting agent. Those displaced by climate are not under legal protection.

Kenya flooding climate

Michael Onyango pulls his cow from his flooded land in Kenya in April 2012. Over 600 families have been displaced following the ongoing heavy rains. Residents are now appealing for humanitarian aid as they fear the outbreak of water borne diseases. (AP Photo/Dan Kiyi)

There is currently no global strategy on how to handle climate-displaced communities, according to Bruce Knotts, director at the Unitarian Universalist Association-United Nations Office.

“The United Nations is planning a global summit on refugees and migration in September 2018. They may make a stab at some kind of comprehensive global strategy, and there needs to be a global strategy," Knotts told AccuWeather.

About a third of Holland is below sea level. The region developed a climate resilient plan to combat this. They have the political will and have used their money because it is important to them, according to Knotts.

"So if you have the resources, if you have the technology, if you have the political will, you can even protect areas below sea level. It just costs money and, right now, I see no political will," Knotts said.

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