Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration

Wildfires rage in the West. Hurricanes batter the East. Droughts and floods wreak damage throughout the nation. Life has become increasingly untenable in the hardest-hit areas, but if the people there move, where will everyone go?

August besieged California with a heat unseen in generations. A surge in air conditioning broke the state’s electrical grid, leaving a population already ravaged by the coronavirus to work remotely by the dim light of their cellphones. By mid month, the state had recorded possibly the hottest temperature ever measured on earth — 130 degrees in Death Valley — and an otherworldly storm of lightning had cracked open the sky. From Santa Cruz to Lake Tahoe, thousands of bolts of electricity exploded down onto withered grasslands and forests, some of them already hollowed out by climate-driven infestations of beetles and kiln-dried by the worst five-year drought on record. Soon, California was on fire.

Over the next two weeks, 900 blazes incinerated six times as much land as all the state’s 2019 wildfires combined, forcing 100,000 people from their homes. Three of the largest fires in history burned simultaneously in a ring around the San Francisco Bay Area. Another fire burned just 12 miles from my home in Marin County. I watched as towering plumes of smoke billowed from distant hills in all directions and air tankers crisscrossed the skies. Like many Californians, I spent those weeks worrying about what might happen next, wondering how long it would be before an inferno of 60-foot flames swept up the steep, grassy hillside on its way toward my own house, rehearsing in my mind what my family would do to escape.

The millions of people moving north will mostly head to the cities of the Northeast and Northwest, which will see their populations grow by roughly 10%, according to one model. Once-chilly places like Minnesota and Michigan and Vermont will become more temperate, verdant and inviting.

Read complete story by Abrahm Lustgarten, at ProPublica; photography by Meridith Kohut

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