Climate Migration and Death in the U.S.

Frank Wolf

I assume climate change is real and was caused by people starting during the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century.

I have organized my talk around five topics:

  1. How weather affects migration
  2. How groups of people are affected by migration
  3. How location affects migration
  4. How decisions by people affect migration
  5. Where people migrate to.


I found statistics that, during 2020, 880 people died by heat and 440 by hurricanes. Heat accounted for twice as many deaths as hurricanes, and this surprised me a little until I remembered the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest.

     The heat wave ran from June 26 to July 2 and was caused by an unprecedented heat dome in Seattle. There are two things that contribute to a heat dome – atmospheric pressure and rising sea temperatures. One hundred persons died during this week and the most affected groups were males and those over 75 years old. Temperatures were 20 F to 30 F degrees above average. Most homes did not have air conditioning since the summers are usually cool. The heat broke concrete pavements and the many drawbridges in the area were sprayed with water to keep them working. Heat domes have previously occurred in Seattle but only for shorter periods and with lower temperatures.

     Portland, which is 170 miles south of Seattle, also saw record temperatures. The city opened cooling centers to supply relief for people without air conditioning. On consecutive days, Portland set high-temperature records. Saturday, June 27, had a high of 108 F degrees, Sunday it was 112 F, and Monday 116 F degrees, among the hottest places in the world for that day. A record overnight low temperature of 75 F was set. When the lowest temperature of the day is high, it is of concern because a cool night gives the body a chance to recover from the heat of the day.

     On June 29, 2021, Phoenix Arizona broke a record with back-to-back temperatures of 117 F degrees. Then it broke another record when it did not get below 90 F degrees for seven straight days. Those working outdoors had to wear heavy clothing to avoid sunburn.

  A combination of high humidity and high temperature can be fatal, particularly if occurring over a long period of time.  Under low or moderate humidity, your sweat evaporates and cools your body. With high levels of humidity, your sweat does not evaporate and your body is not cooled.  Under high temperature and high humidity conditions, the body is doing everything it can to maintain a body temperature of 98.6 F degrees.  Living under these conditions would be fatal to large groups of people if experienced for too long a period.

     An MIT study has found that air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a number ranging from 0 to 500. It is divided into 6 groups: 0-99, 100-199, etc.  Low AQI is good while high is bad. Pollutants end up in the air in a variety of ways, including human activities such as burning fossil fuels (driving your car) as well as natural sources like dust, wildfires, and volcanoes. Small particles can enter the lung tissues and enter your bloodstream. Smoke from forest fires is a major hazard in northern California and causes days with high AQI levels. Then health experts recommend people avoid any outdoor activities and keep their doors and windows shut to prevent prolonged smoke exposure. Schools close.

Groups of people

How do people in nursing homes migrate? Older people have long-time friends and medical care where they lived for many years. It would be difficult for them to migrate unless they had family to migrate to.  Families with children may be reluctant to move because of the disruption in their children’s lives. On the other hand, couples with no children or single individuals may find it easy to leave.


Ice shelves in Antarctica are collapsing, and glaciers and the Greenland icecap are melting. Water is one of the few molecules on Earth that expands when it is cooled.  So, ice floats in water rather than sinking. As the oceans warm, they expand.  Melting ice and expanding oceans have been causing and will continue to cause sea rise. This would be of concern to major coastal cities including Boston, NYC, Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco, plus low-lying areas like Louisiana and Galveston.

     The Solomon Islands is a nation of hundreds of islands and has a population of 640,000 and is 1000 miles northeast of Australia.  Several of its islands have become uninhabitable because of sea rise, and soon more will be underwater. Other Pacific islands will soon become victims of sea rise.

     The weather has always been the farmer’s bane. A dry summer will ruin corn yield. A spring freeze, while fruit trees are in bloom, can be disastrous.  A recent heavy freeze in Florida killed entire orchards. An orchard is expensive to replace and will not bear fruit for five to seven years.

     The Colorado River starts in central Colorado and flows through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead at the border of Arizona and Nevada, then south through Mexico to the Gulf of California. This river and its tributaries supply water for 40 million people for both agricultural and domestic use.  Dams generate hydroelectric power for a large area, half of which goes to California.  Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 and is located on the Arizona Nevada border. It is just south of Las Vegas and forms Lake Mead. The lake is the largest reservoir in the U.S. when full, but it is currently at 41% capacity. When full, the lake level is 1229 feet. Generating power has been reduced as the lake level drooped to 1,084 feet. If it falls another 34 feet, the generators may fail to work.


Let’s say there are three decisions people can make:

  1. Stay
  2. Stay now, leave later
  3. Leave

An individual’s decision depends on the type of weather they are experiencing, the group of people they belong to, and where they are located. Let’s look at six hypothetical examples.

     Suppose you are a family with three children living in Seattle. You are hesitant to leave because of the reasons we discussed earlier, but if the heat dome is going to reoccur, you better sell the house now and migrate. Stay or leave depends on what you think the probability of frequent, serious heat domes is. Roll the dice. A risky situation. Risk makes people uncomfortable.

     Suppose you live in Miami, which is at sea level and has seen the collapse of a major condominium.  If you were an older person, the future looks bad but you might say, “A sea rise is a number of years in the future, but I don’t have that many years left; so I’ll stay.”  Try to imagine what you would do if your family lived in a nice condominium in Miami.

     If you are single or married with no children, and you live where the weather or location will be negatively affected by climate change, you would probably start looking for a job in a better location.

If you own an orchard in Florida, you are faced with a dilemma like that faced by the couple in Seattle. Replanting your orchard is risky because of the cost and the five to seven years during which it will not provide any income. Before you decide not to replant, you would need to estimate the value of your property if you were to sell it or use it for another purpose.  This would be influenced by your estimate of future heavy freezes.

If you, unfortunately, lost all you own in an Ida-level hurricane, your only question is: “Where do we sleep tonight?”

Where to migrate to

Google this question and you will get many answers. One answer I got was to three general locations including the (a) Pacific Northwest, (b) Northern Midwest (WI, MN, MI), and (c) New England. Based on recent events, the Pacific Northwest does not look particularly good. Boston is part of New England and catches the tail end of major hurricanes. Another town in New England, Burlington, Vermont, was mentioned in another list as a great place to move to.  Unless you are wealthy, the price of housing is a crucial factor to consider when looking for a place to migrate to. A list of the five worst places to migrate to is Miami, Honolulu, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Boston.

Let me change gears and say:  the greatest problem facing the world today is not climate change, it is overpopulation.

In year zero the world population was 190 million; by 1800 it was one billion. It then hit 2 billion in 1928, 128 years later.  By 1960, it took only 32 years to hit 3 billion, 15 years to hit 4 billion, then 12-year spans to 5, 6, and 7 billion. Another way to look at it is the world population has doubled since 1970; if you are 51 years old, it has doubled during your lifetime. Experts believe the planet Earth cannot support a population of more than 12 billion.  Forecasts of what the world would look like then are grim.

     It is difficult to talk about world population problems because each continent, region, and country has its own unique problems; so let us just look at the U.S. With a current population of 330 million, it is not difficult to make a strong argument that we have too many people.  Overpopulation triggered the sixth mass extinction of wildlife. In addition, we are running out of water. For example, the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the world, supports 30% of U.S. crop and animal production, but it is becoming polluted and depleted. More water is flowing out than is flowing in. Even if the population stayed constant, it would only be a matter of time until there would not be enough water to support 330 million people.

     If something is sustainable, then it is good now and it is good in the future. A sustainable rate of population growth is zero.  Assume the population is half male and half female and each couple would have two children. Thus, you have two in and two out for a net rate of zero. Then the population would eventually stabilize and become constant, but the population would still be about 330 million people. A negative growth rate would be necessary to reduce the population. Suppose each couple had only one child; that would be one in and two out. Suppose, arbitrarily, this rate continued for one hundred years, back to 1921 when the population was 116 million or 15% of our current population.  This should be a sustainable population.

Kalamazoo, October 8, 2021

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