The conversation around climate change in the South often focuses on the coasts, where stronger and more frequent hurricanes and storms can bring deadly flooding, and contribute to coastal erosion. 

Then there is the long-debated increase in sea level, which at its worst will see waters rise up more than 8 feet between 2060 and 2100, placing entire coastal cities underwater.

But hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico’s idyllic beaches and the Atlantic coast’s picturesque cities, climate change is a significant threat to people and communities, particularly from pollution, drought and heat waves.

The result: In the decades ahead, climate change on the Southern coasts will see millions of Americans relocate to communities further inland – one of the most costly and permanent consequences of climate change.

“You saw this after Hurricane Katrina several years ago, in 2005, when all of those people fled New Orleans, and literally relocated and permanently moved to cities like Atlanta, Asheville, North Carolina,“ Professor James Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, told Reckon. 

“That may happen on a much grander scale in the coming decades, creating these changes to the political character of those cities, alongside things like the economy, geography and even more inequality.” 

Approximately 1.5 million people fled coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama either before or immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast, according to a 2015 report.  About 40% of those people were unable to return to their homes. Of that figure, 35% moved to new homes between 450 miles and 830 miles away from the city.  

It took 15 years for New Orleans’ population to recover from the exodus.

In an effort to head off the climate crisis, world leaders, scientists and prominent names in climate change are meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. 

The ability to move away from the coasts, either because of an immediate natural disaster event or the gradual progression of climate change, comes down to myriad inputs, according to the Dec. 2019 report: Sea Level Rise and Human Migration. In short, the ability to leave is primarily related to socioeconomic factors.

“Many of those migrants will be the racial minority or from other marginalized groups,” added Marshall. 

Generally, about 40% of U.S. residents live in coastal communities. By 2100, approximately 13 million could face permanent displacement unless climate change is aggressively tackled. Half of those people live in Florida, noted the report.

“Accordingly, future migration modelling suggests coastal adjacent, major inland cities, such as Austin, Texas, Orlando, Florida, or Atlanta, Georgia, might become major migration destinations,” said the report.

And as those cities bring in more people and expand, they will become warmer than other smaller communities. Heat islands, as cities are often referred to in climate studies, have more structures, such as buildings and roads, which absorb and re-emit the sun’s rays. That’s why trees and parks are becoming an increasingly important tool to combat urban climate change, according to previous Reckon reporting.

But heat islands aren’t the only danger to these inland cities. 

“We know climate change is already leading to a generation of more intense hurricanes, on average, stronger hurricanes, that are actually maintaining their intensity further inland,” said Professor Marshall. 

Hurricane Ida, the most recent strong hurricane to hit the Gulf coast, became more intense during its final three days over water – with wind speeds increasing by 65mph on its last day in the Gulf. It then sustained hurricane speeds for 16 hours after making landfall, highly unusual for a hurricane.

Four days later, Ida dumped more than 8 inches of water on New Jersey in a single day, a record for the state. Flash floods in the region resulted in the deaths of 50 people. 

“During Hurricane Michael in 2018, much of our agricultural crop in southwest Georgia was destroyed,” said Marshall. “In places like Albany, Thomasville, and rural communities well inland from the coast, they lost pecan, peanut, vegetable, cotton and poultry to the tune of $3 billion to $4 billion in damage.” 

Marshall added: “So whether you’re inland in a city or in a rural environment, you are at risk from climate change. It won’t just be a question of where do we go to escape it. And that’s why these conversations we’re having about climate change at the highest levels are so important.”