Climate Change and Migration: How We’re Learning from Puerto Rico

Numerous studies and a growing body of real-time evidence link rising planetary temperatures to an increase in forceful and destructive weather patterns, seasonal temperature extremes, and unusually powerful storms, including hurricanes. By extension, these forceful storms are expected to bring notable changes in human behavior, specifically migration.

Where people choose to live will almost certainly be affected in future decades by the impact of hurricanes alone, and the long-term response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico will provide researchers with volumes of information that can help us understand and predict responses to future weather events.

Of course this long-term response can’t be fully examined just yet because it’s still underway, but already the patterns emerging from this storm are providing data regarding how, where and why populations shift after major weather events. Later this week we’ll talk about one of the factors with the strongest influence on post hurricane migrations—the availability of flood insurance. But regardless of access to insurance that can make people whole again after personal property loss, a complete recovery can’t take place as long as power grids and roads remain non-functional.

And once an exodus from a damaged area begins, a chain of events unfolds that can push full recovery even further out of reach. With the population reduced, an area loses its economic base. Without workers to repair roads and grids, activity slows, and as activity slows, so do schools, commerce, public services and healthcare centers. This general slowdown makes leaving an appealing option even for those who have not been affected by personal or immediate storm losses. It also creates the conditions for a slow but steady population destabilization that continues for years after the storm has passed.

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And as an exodus begins and then gains momentum, housing and services in destination areas become strained and over extended, which in turn generates an ongoing socio-economic ripple-effect with long term impact that has yet to be determined and predicted.

Researchers at the International Monetary Fund released a report in September that examined the links between extreme weather and outward migration in more than 100 countries over three decades. Petia Topalova, the IMF researcher and lead author of the report, notes a clear rise in migration resulting from an increase in weather-related disasters. Read more in Chapter 3 of the report here.

You can also find recent commentary on the issue here and here. Our Executive Director, Inder Comar, will be speaking this Thursday at Lafayette College about this issue. Reach out to us if you want to attend or learn more about the talk! And of course, tune in to our blog for more information as data becomes available and events unfold.