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Flocking to fire?

More move from hurricane zones to wildfire areas

Where did Americans move over the last decade? The top migration destinations include the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Southwest Texas, Florida, and a large swath of the Southeast In contrast, people tended to move away from places in the Midwest, the Great Plains, and along the Mississippi River. Those sort of moves are expected to continue as extreme weather events, including heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires continue.

The predictions are part of a 10-year examination of trends in human migration across the US in relation to features of the natural landscape and climate, as well as frequencies of various natural hazards.

"These findings are concerning, because people are moving into harm's way - into regions with wildfires and rising temperatures, which are expected to become more extreme due to climate change," said the University of Vermont study lead author Mahalia Clark. She noted that the study was inspired by the increasing number of headlines of record-breaking natural disasters.

Each year in the US, natural hazards and disasters in the form of extreme weather events cause numerous deaths and billions of dollars in damages. From 2010 to 2020, hurricanes killed an average of 332 people per year and did an average of $47 billion in damage per year, while wildfires killed an average of 23 people per year and did an average of $7 billion worth of damage per year.

"The decision to move is a complicated and personal decision that involves weighing dozens of factors," said Clark. "Weighing all these factors, we see a general aversion to hurricane risk, but ultimately-as we see in Florida-it's one factor in a person's list of pros and cons, which can be outweighed by other preferences."

Published by the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics, the study, "Flocking to Fire: How Climate and Natural Hazards Shape Human Migration Across the United States," is the largest investigation yet of how natural disasters, climate change and other factors impacted U.S. migration over the last decade (2010-2020).

The researchers also found the idea that people prefer mild climates and varied landscapes-with hills or mountains, lakes or ocean, and a mixture of forest and open space-is supported by the literature on landscape preferences and housing values. "Studies exploring these natural amenities have found significant relationships with migration around the US: in general, people move toward warmer winters, more temperate summers, more varied topography, water bodies, and intermediate levels of forest cover, particularly in rural (nonmetropolitan) areas," according to their report.

The strongest out-migration has been from rural counties far from metropolitan areas, with few economic opportunities. These areas are concentrated in the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River, regions which are low in natural amenities. In contrast, rural population growth has been strongest in counties near metropolitan areas or high in natural amenities, particularly across the West and along the coasts and mountains of the Southeast.


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