Finding safe haven in the climate change future: The Southeast

This Yahoo News series analyzes different regions around the country in terms of climate change risks that they face now and will experience in the years to come.

As the negative consequences of rising global temperatures due to mankind's relentless burning of fossil fuels become more apparent in communities across the United States, anxiety over finding a place to live safe from the ravages of climate change has also been on the rise.

“Millions and likely tens of millions of Americans” will move because of climate through the end of the century, Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate in Tulane University's School of Architecture, told Yahoo News. “People move because of school districts, affordability, job opportunities. There are a lot of drivers and I think it’s probably best to think about this as ‘climate is now one of those drivers.’”

Destroyed trailer homes are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla.
Destroyed trailer homes are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

In late October, a report by the United Nations concluded that average global temperatures are on track to warm by 2.1 degrees Celsius to 2.9 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. As a result, the world can expect a dramatic rise in chaotic, extreme weather events. Figuring out where to ride out the coming decades, however, is no easy matter.

Calculating climate risk depends on a dizzying number of factors, including luck, latitude, elevation, the upkeep of infrastructure, long-term climate patterns, the predictable behavior of the jet stream and how warming ocean waters could impact the frequency of El Niño/La Niña cycles.

“No place is immune from climate change impacts, certainly in the continental United States, and throughout the U.S. those impacts will be quite severe,” Keenan said. “They will be more severe in some places and less severe in other places. Certain places will be more moderate in terms of temperature and some places will be more extreme, but we all share the risk of the increase of extreme events.”

In this installment, we look at one of the most-threatened regions of the country.

The Southeast

According to a 2020 analysis published by ProPublica and the New York Times of findings provided by the Rhodium Group, the Southeast is home to 9 of the 10 worst-ranked counties overall in the U.S. in terms of combined climate change risks.

The analysis included six major categories — heat stress, the combination of heat and humidity (wet bulb), crop loss, very large fires, sea level rise and economic damages — and rated each county on the impact climate change would have on it given two emissions scenarios: high and moderate.

Large portions of the Southeast, which includes Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, have an especially vulnerable coastline. Coastal Louisiana ranked the worst of any state in the region, with five of its counties — St. Martin Parish, Assumption Parish, Jefferson Davis Parish, Livingston Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish — rated in the bottom 10 overall in the U.S. in part due to the simple fact that much of that land will be underwater in the coming decades.

The equivalent of a football field of wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta disappears every hour — 16 square miles every year for the last 25 years — according to a 2021 study by the United States Geological Survey.

White and Grand lakes in the Mississippi River Delta in coastal Louisiana.
White and Grand lakes in the Mississippi River Delta in coastal Louisiana. (Marli Miller/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

North Carolina’s Hyde County and South Carolina’s Colleton and Beaufort counties, the last of which includes Hilton Head Island, were also in the bottom 10 overall, while Mississippi’s Jackson County also made that dubious list in part due to extremely high wet-bulb rankings. Thanks to a combination of poor scores on wet bulb, farm crop yields, sea level rise and potential economic losses due to climate change, Beaufort County claimed the worst ranking in the lower 48 U.S. states.

The devastation wrought in September by Hurricane Ian is just the latest example of the extreme risks climate change has amplified across the region. While hurricanes threatened the Southeast for centuries before the advent of the internal combustion engine, decades of research have established that rising global temperatures are making hurricanes wetter, windier, slower and able to ramp up quicker than in a pre-climate-change world.

The insurance losses from Hurricane Ian, which killed more than 100 people in Florida, are projected to be between $53 billion and $74 billion, according to an estimate by RMS, a risk modeling company. In addition to that staggering sum, the National Flood Insurance Program could face an extra $10 billion in losses, Insurance Business America reported. The storm has prompted a debate about whether residents would be better off relocating rather than rebuilding in such a vulnerable area.

“With Hurricane Ian, I think we’ve seen a conversation at a much more acute pitch and much more rapidly moving in the direction of ‘Do not rebuild here. Do not come back here. We should not be putting taxpayer money into this.’ And those families should not be putting their entire net worth into that place again,” Parag Khanna, the founder and CEO of Climate Alpha, a company that helps investors quantify climate change risks to real estate, told Yahoo News. “The accelerating frequency of these disasters is contributing to that change in mood which is reinforcing what policymakers know they must do.”

Emily Francois walks through floodwater beside her flood-damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida on in Jean Lafitte, La.
Emily Francois walks through floodwater beside her flood-damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida on in Jean Lafitte, La. (John Locher/AP)

A 2021 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that, thanks to climate change, states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida will be twice as likely to experience consecutive tropical cyclones, meaning fewer than 10 days between them, by the year 2100.

“Even the best-case scenario of this worst-case scenario still spells devastation for the coast,” Jill Trepanier, a climate scientist and geographer at Louisiana State University, told “That’s why climate refugees exist. They’re people who are displaced because they can no longer live in an area due to changing climate conditions.”

Making tropical systems like Ian even more dangerous, sea levels in states like Florida have risen by an average of 8 inches since 1950, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they are expected to rise an additional 8 to 9 inches by 2050 due to the accelerated rate of melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers.

The sea is rising in Louisiana at an especially fast pace — 1 inch every 2 years — in large part because the ground along the coast has also been sinking. In fact, since 1950, the sea level around Grand Isle, which sits off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, has risen 24 inches.

In communities like Tampa Bay, Fla., saltwater from the rising seas has already begun encroaching on groundwater, forcing utilities to rely on desalination plants to continue to provide enough drinking water for the population. Cities like Miami Beach have begun spending tax dollars on elevating roads and installing water pumps as flooding due to sea level rise has become an increasingly common occurrence.

A man stands in front of his destroyed house in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Fla.
A man stands in front of his destroyed house in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Fla. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

“I don’t think coastal real estate within a few feet of sea level is a smart investment or even a good idea to begin with at this point,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told Yahoo News about the country as a whole. Swain also consults for ClimateCheck, a company that provides climate change risk assessments on real estate nationwide. “There’s essentially a 100 percent chance that sea levels will be significantly higher in a few decades and perhaps a lot higher; we don’t really know that rate of change.”

But it’s not just coastal communities that face a grim climate change future. The entire region is expected to see temperatures continue to rise in the coming years, further altering the water cycle.

“Temperature will increase, resulting in more frequent and dangerous heatwaves and potentially leading to more severe droughts. Extreme rainfall events are generally likely to become more frequent and intense,” the U.S. Climate Resilience Tooklit states on its website.

In every region in the country, there are better and worse places to live when it comes to climate risks. According to the New York Times and ProPublica analysis in 2020, Bristol City, Va., an independent jurisdiction located in the far western portion of the state at an elevation of 1,620 feet above sea level, ranks as the 29th safest county in the U.S. for overall climate change risks and is the third-safest overall for the region. More Virginia mountain towns — Harrisonburg, Norton, Danville, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Radford, Roanoke and Salem cities — are among the top 10 safest counties in the Southeast.

Roanoke, Va., is among the safest counties with respect to climate change risk.
Roanoke, Va., is among the safest counties with respect to climate change risk. (Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It is worth noting, however, that since the release of the New York Times/ProPublica analysis in 2020, the climate has continued to warm, and some risks have made themselves more apparent.

In late July, Kentucky’s Letcher County, which ranked as the 11th safest in the Southeast, was hammered with close to 16 inches of rain over four days. The downpours “caused rainfall rates in excess of 4”/hr across complex terrain that led to widespread devastating impacts,” the National Weather Service said on its website.

In all, 43 people were killed as a result of the flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky, 4 of them in Letcher County. The highest peak in the county is Black Mountain’s 3,750 feet, while the lowest elevation is 940. In July, that topography was tested by extreme rainfall in a way local residents had scarcely seen in their lifetime, and according to computer modeling, as temperatures continue to rise, the region can expect to face even more tests.

“Climate change will cause more frequent and intense storms, causing increased flooding” in the Southeastern U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency states on its website.

Understanding that rising temperatures dramatically increase the probability of an extreme rainfall event is different from actually experiencing such an event, however, and may not cause a person to abandon an area altogether.

A view of flood-damaged buildings in Louisiana.
A view of flood-damaged buildings in Louisiana. (Jonathan Ernst/AFP via Getty Images)

“Even for people who are leaving Fort Myers or New Orleans or any place that has been devastated by natural disasters — the Kentucky floods — they don’t just say ‘climate change is my only primary consideration,’ right?” Khanna said. “They say, ‘OK, what is the nearest proximate place where there’s affordable housing, where I might be able to get a job, where are there schools for my kids,’ all of these things.”

As Khanna notes, climate change is really a new factor in the calculus of where to settle, and one that often doesn’t factor in until disaster strikes. The year before Hurricane Ian devastated the Gulf Coast, the Fort Myers area had been the sixth-fastest-growing area in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.