Surviving climate chaos: Shelter in place or flee to safety?

Yellowknife street

Once Manhattan is under water, the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife could become North America’s city of the future. Photo: Hyougushi.

As scientists continue to revise their climate predictions for the worse, it’s clear that the time has passed for the world to avoid serious consequences from global warming.

With superstorms and floods competing with droughts and wildfires to break records somewhere around the world year-round, the weather is already getting pretty weird. So now, the real question is how best to prepare for even weirder weather in the future.

Should you move to someplace safer or should you stay where you already have family, friends and connections to the community?

Everybody seems to agree that, if you live in Miami, you should move just about anyplace else except New Orleans, Bangladesh or Kiribati as soon as you can.

In a Rolling Stone piece provocatively titled “Goodbye Miami,” Jeff Goodell writes that “by century’s end, rising sea levels will turn the nation’s urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin.”

But if you live elsewhere, you’ve got a harder decision to make.

Choose hipsters or get hip-waders

Environmental blog Grist offers ten cities that it predicts will be spared the worst impacts of climate change.

Topping the list is Seattle, whose eco-awareness could cancel out the vulnerability to sea-level rise and storms of its coastal location. “Higher tides and a redrawn coastline will require coastal cities to adapt, but unlike a lot of U.S. burgs, Seattle is taking it seriously, developing a comprehensive climate action plan [PDF] and working to bolster food security and general resilience for changing times,” writes author Jim Meyer. With tongue-in-cheek, Meyers adds that “Plus, while models foresee flooding [for Seattle], they don’t project the hipster inundation to reach Portlandic levels. And in a worst-case scenario, the Space Needle serves as an escape pod.”

Meyer thinks that climate action plans will also help make coastal cities Homer, Alaska and San Francisco safer than New York, San Diego and of course Miami that are on Grist’s companion list of “screwed” cities that remain unprepared for superstorm hell and high water.

Inland cities including Detroit, Cleveland and Nashville as well as mountain town Leadville, Colorado also score well as climate-safe cities. Not only are they far from rising seas and coastal storms but they also have ample water supplies, a big bonus in a climate where many dry areas will get even drier.

By contrast, desert boomtowns like Phoenix or Las Vegas or even the whole state of Texas are already starting to become uninhabitable as rain disappears, wells dry up, topsoil blows away and wildfires consume brittle forests. And talk about screwed — gas fracking in dry areas is just going to make already stressed water supplies collapse more quickly.

Doomed to wander

A real climate doomer may tell you that we’re all screwed. Since climate change effects on local weather are unpredictable, you can’t predict which places will be winners and losers in a chaotic future either.

Global climate is a system too complex for us to say for sure what will happen in any one place. For example, before it disappears under rising seas, New York City could develop the hot, humid climate of Charleston. Or, if warming seas turn off the Gulf Stream, Manhattan could instead be buried under a glacier, as in the 2004 climate disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. In climate chaos, all bets are off.

The only certainty for the climate doomer is that most places will become more dangerous. So, the best chance of survival lies in becoming a permanent nomad, ready to move as climate conditions change.

North to survival

But a slightly less doomerish eye seems to have settled on the frozen North as humanity’s last redoubt.

Six years ago, James Lovelock, of Gaia-hypothesis fame, grimly predicted that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

Since then, Lovelock has backed off, calling his previous view “alarmist” while explaining that “the climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world…[The temperature] has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising – carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that.”

American Exodus

American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival by Giles Slade, New Society, 270pp, $19.95.

Writer Giles Slade is not reassured. In American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival, he contends that, unless you already live in northern Canada, you should be afraid-very-afraid of what climate change will do to the place where you do live.

“Because we regularly deny or underestimate the reality of climate change’s existence, ” Slade warns, “climate change will, by definition, come sooner than we expect.”

Slade reminds us that history is filled with migrations of peoples across vast stretches of territory. And he contends that many of the most famous migrants, from the Asians who crossed the Bering Strait land-bridge into North America during the last ice age to the Okies of the 1930s Dust Bowl, were actually refugees from climate change crises of the past.

Today, Slade already sees desertification driven by climate change creeping north from Mexico into Texas, California and the Great Plains, destroying farms, stressing local economies and sending waves of environmental refugees to wetter areas.

Coincidentally, California’s governor recently declared a drought emergency in the state.

With rising sea levels and storms set to pummel both East and West Coasts in coming years, Slade worries that his own hometown — painfully eco-friendly Vancouver — may only have a decade or two of glory days left.

Certainly, climate change and economic collapse will drive outmigration from the continental United States into Canada. People will flee for their lives, just as 100,000 African-Americans fled the south when the boll weevil changed Dixieland’s cotton-economy. Just as with Mexican migration to the United States, the number of people in motion will be so large it will be impossible to stem the tide.

So, rather than trying to fortify its 5,525 miles of unprotected border with the U.S., Canada should just get used to the idea that it may soon be overrun by millions of Yankees. Indeed, Slade thinks that both nations should start preparing to transfer North American civilization to the one place where it will be safe from the ravages of climate change — inland northwestern Canada.

“The safest places,” Slade writes, “will be significant communities in the north that are not isolated, that have abundant water, that have the possibility of agricultural self-sufficiency, that have little immediate risk of forest fires, that are well elevated, and that are built on solid rock.”

The top candidates?

The obvious choices are the larger towns of Dawson, Whitehorse and Yellowknife because they are accessible, and because western portions of northern Canada will experience less severe temperature rise during the coming century. Most importantly, however, precipitation in the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins will increase by 30 or 40% in the coming years, and winter will remain sufficiently cold to kill off the mountain pine beetles (MPBs) annually (for a few decades, at least).

Eager to get started but not quite ready to go straight to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories?

Slade advises would-be migrants to acclimatize themselves to the culture and weather of the Great White North via Vancouver and Edmonton before settling for good in the place that the Canadian government has dubbed its “coldest, sunniest city,” where winter days regularly dip below -40º F with windchill.

Stay put and take root

Madeline Ostrander thinks you’ll have a better chance to survive climate chaos if you stay home.

She writes in YES! Magazine that “sense of place, community, and rootedness aren’t just poetic ideas. They are survival mechanisms.”

Being rooted in a place can make it easier to survive the kinds of weather disasters that will be more common nearly everywhere due to climate change. “Place attachment is one of several factors that can help a community recover from, and individuals cope with, the kinds of social and environmental crises that are becoming ever more common — like climate change-related disasters, large-scale job layoffs, or political turmoil.”

She continues:

In two separate studies, for instance, individuals who reported higher levels of concern about place were more likely to take steps to prepare for wildfires (in the United States) or floods (in a monsoon-prone region of India). The damage caused by a disaster can be more stressful for individuals who were attached to that place, but those feelings can also motivate people to put the broken place back together, according to a recent book by social workers Michael John Zakour and David F. Gillespie.

While Ostrander concedes that not everybody will be able to stay put — “disasters like drought and flooding that devastate some places and force people to move” — places with strong community will fare better than those with transients in a future of climate chaos.

“As we face this kind of world,” Ostrander writes, “some communities might endure precisely because people have dug in, rooted themselves, and developed the kinds of generosity, adaptiveness, and foresight that come from knowing where they are.”

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. bryan says

    Interesting that you chose a nice warm spring day for the Yellowknife photo. And no, the -40 does not require either a wind chill or a ‘F’ after it. I spent 3 great years up there; and it is a little colder than you think – my seatpost broke on my bicycle at about -42, and it was windy that day but the metal didn’t care that the ‘wind chill’ was a lot worse. If you like the idea of camping in an unheated van at -25 you might be interested. You can be assured that A) acclimatizing by ‘living in Vancouver’ is written by someone very ignorant of climate, and B) all those mild-mannered northern Canadians are armed to the teeth and will not be welcoming a flood of newcomers.

    • says

      I’m guessing you’re not with the Yellowknife Realtors Association. Sounds like cold that makes Alaska seem moderate. Might be an interesting place to visit in August but I can’t imagine making such a big move, especially, as you point out, if the current residents might not be particularly eager to resettle a bunch of new people. I’m with the camp that says, as long as you’re not in an obviously vulnerable area like a low-lying coastal city or a dry area with insufficient water, then stay where you are, where people know you and will be willing to work together with you if times get tough.

  2. Bloomer says

    Manitoba is currently colder then the planet Mars….it wouldn’t be my choice of destinations.
    I read some time ago, that climate change affects the jet stream and makes North America more vulnerable to weather events such as the ongoing Arctic vortex. Seems people are just take it all in stride which begs the question…. what will it take before the global community takes notice and starts to plan for Global Climate change?

  3. Dave Larsen says

    I disagree with locations listed. The entire West and Northwest is drying out. Some of the most inhospitable places in the continental US are in the inner mountain west. The northeast could in fact be buried in snow if the gulf stream shuts down due to all the fresh water being dumped into it from melting glaciers. In the US a study was done showing Appalacia being one of the better places due to milder climate, more intact forest canopy, and plenty of water. I would choose North Carlolina or South Carolina due to thier buy local mindset, local growing and community minded people. All the talk about Miami and NY being under water is irrelevant. Not many reading this blog will be alive in 2100 to see it – coastal inundation is a long way off. Mega blizzards, hurricanes and 100 year droughts are the main concern in our time frame.

  4. Annie says

    I think folks need to both take this very seriously that we need to begin reevaluating our daily habits and changing the way we consume, AND everyone needs to calm way down. We don’t exactly know, but then again we don’t exactly know. This could be good, could be bad, who knows. If climate change were never a factor, China’s skys, along with the rest of the world would just keep getting darker with smog. This planet needs a despret change, and Climate change is the least of the reason.

    I argue that climate change is the one thing that may actually save our species and maybe even a few others still left on this planet. We are so stupid. We could do so much better.

  5. James Madigan says

    When the climate jumps 2 degrees summer will be much hotter and droughts in the Southeast will be magnified. That does NOT mean winter will go away. More evaporation means more moisture for winter storms, and they will pack a wallop. More polar vortex intrusions with more snow means more extreme winters. 2100 may be a good time for a move to Canada, but NOT now unless you like EXTREME winter! I would rather deal with a slightly warmer summer in Florida than freeze to death in my car in a 4 foot blizzard in Minnesota.

    • says

      Good points about winter getting worse in many places you wouldn’t expect it. As to Florida, my family lives there, and I want them to stay safe and prosperous. But the prognosis for Miami and all of South Florida is terrible and forecasts routinely show it as one of the most vulnerable places in the US to weird weather, especially hurricanes and sea level rise. I wonder if northern Florida might have a brighter future?

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