Climate Refugees Along the Gulf Will Flee Florida, Flock to Texas

Streets of Miami flood after heavy rains in 2009.
Streets of Miami flood after heavy rains in 2009.
Bill Cooke

Scientists predict sea level rise caused by climate change will submerge coastal areas of the United States — yet somehow, this could be an economic boon to Texas.

That's according to a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Nature that examines how forced migration due to rising waters could change where Americans live. If oceans rise three to six feet in the next 80 years, South Florida stands to lose more than 2.5 million residents by 2100, while coastal Louisiana would also lose more than half a million residents.

Texas, by contrast, stands to capture many of these climate refugees. According Mathew E. Hauer, the study's author, Austin could receive more displaced Americans — some 800,000 — than any other U.S. city. Houston could see more than 250,000, as could Atlanta and Orlando, Florida.

Like all communities along the Gulf of Mexico, Texas coastal cities from Galveston to Brownsville stand to lose as many as 50,000 residents because of rising waters. But Texas's inland cities mean the state will actually gain residents thanks to climate change, authors argue. The study predicts nine states, all of which border an ocean, will be net losers of population because of rising sea levels.

Worth noting is the study only examines sea level rise, not Houston's worsening flood problems due to increased precipitation and vanishing permeable surfaces.

Winners and losers: As South Florida sinks to the sea, Texas cities stand to receive many climate refugees.
Winners and losers: As South Florida sinks to the sea, Texas cities stand to receive many climate refugees.

"If future migration pathways mimic past pathways, [sea level rise] is expected to reshape the U.S. population distribution and could stress some landlocked areas unprepared for these migrations while revitalizing others," the study's authors note. "[Sea level rise] is currently framed as a coastal hazard, but the migratory effects could ripple far inland."

Hauer says migration to inland cities could be a blessing or a curse — a burden to some municipalities with outdated infrastructure and lack of employment opportunities, and a blessing to cities in need of revitalization. Texas, however, seems to be prepared. The U.S. Census Bureau announced last year that five of the 11 fastest-growing U.S. cities are in Texas.


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