Wherever you live, climate change will transform your life over the next several decades. It will get hotter, drier, and homes near the coasts face flooding risk due to rising sea levels. If you aren’t ready to stay in your coastal home despite the risks, it’s time to consider moving to higher ground in your region — and to learn about the factors that should influence your choice of locations.
Coastlines around the world are threatened by flooding, erosion, and saltwater incursions into wells and community water supplies. In the United States, the Southeast and Northeast are most susceptible to hurricane and storm surge flooding, as well as losing freshwater supplies as the sea rises. In the West, coastal erosion, including the loss of homes on bluffs above Pacific beaches, and water supply issues are the primary concerns facing homeowners who live near the ocean.
Rather than pull up roots and move across the country, most of us considering a change of homes will want to consider living further from the coast while avoiding other consequences of climate change. Because we cannot completely avoid the impact of climate change anywhere, a change of homes should be combined with changes to your lifestyle to reduce your environmental impact.
When and Where to Consider Leaving
Climate change is driving longer and more severe hurricane seasons and extreme weather that can contribute to flash flooding that can cause death and property loss in cities farther from the coast. If you live within 15 to 20 feet from sea level in the storm-prone Southeast and Northeast, there are good reasons to think about moving now — not only the potential damage but the inability to insure homes and personal property will lower the value of at-risk homes in these regions.
In 2107, Climate Central identified the 25 most at-risk cities for significant or “100-year” flooding events. The low-lying Southeast is the region most exposed to flood risk, but note that New York City, where 245,000 people could be displaced by a large storm’s tidal surge, tops the list. Florida’s coastal cities represent the largest population — 1.58 million people — that could face disaster due to hurricane storm surge and sea level rise. Not only will these cities suffer but Climate Central also reports that low-income homes will be hardest hit as the risk of damage will increase by 300% before 2050.
Another problem these low-lying cities face is failing freshwater sources. As sea levels rise, the normal flow of groundwater toward the ocean is reversed, causing aquifers and wells near the coast to become contaminated by saltwater. Florida’s aquifers are particularly susceptible to saltwater intrusion because the state is surrounded by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Yet its population is expected to grow by 25% over the next two decades. More people with access to less water is the recipe for conflict, and it is certain to affect property values.
The West is not immune from water concerns either. As drought continues and sea levels rise, low-lying homes’ wells and public water supplies could see increased contamination by salt water. And as sea level rises, important coastal wetlands will be threatened, which would change local food supplies as fish lose a critical habitat.
“If you erase an entire system, the effects are going to ripple upward to predators and downward to prey species. It is just startling,” UCLA Distinguished Professor of Geology Glen MacDonald said when describing a research paper he co-authored in 2018. Despite enjoying a generally steeper coastline, the West faces multiple perils.
Another concern for the Pacific coast is the erosion of bluffs, which will threaten homes, highways, beaches, and wildlife. Just this week, Orange County, Calif., saw its commuter and Amtrack services along the coast shut down due to erosion. While these sound like mere inconveniences that one could live through, the dire consequences of erosion on the region are wide-ranging and touch every Pacific state.
“Many of these valued coastal systems could reach ‘tipping points,'” the U.S. Geological Service wrote of coastal erosion in a 2021 research report. Those changes, “at which hazard exposure substantially increases and threatens the present-day form, function, and viability of communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems.”
Climate change has arrived and it is time to take stock of your options on every coastline in the U.S.
Where and Why to Move Nearby
Family, friends, work, and all the patterns of life we know are powerful reasons to stay in the regions where we already live. While there is talk of “climate havens” these days, it is not at all certain that moving to those regions will make life better. So, for most of us, the best option is to stay near home, choosing higher ground that is as insulated as possible from other negative climate impacts, including flash floods and increased fire risk.
Choose City Life
If you have a place on the beach today, you should consider moving to the central core of the nearest city. All in all, city living is more efficient and allows you to avoid driving. Living in an apartment or condo with easy, car-free access to services, groceries, restaurants, and culture will reduce your environmental impact. There are trade-offs, however, such as a growing city’s contribution to heat island effects that can change local weather patterns.
But city dwellers tend to live in smaller homes and their per capita impact on the environment is actually lower than suburban and rural communities. Home sizes in the most densely populated cities in the U.S have started to shrink, though many growing cities still see new homes growing in size, according to PropertyShark. Over the past 100 years, homes in New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Miami have gotten smaller but the South, Southern California, and boom cities like Seattle and Portland continue to see homes getting larger. Choosing an apartment or condo instead of a single-family home will lighten your environmental impact.
Flash Flood Risks
Flash flooding is also a growing problem for cities far inland, as the remnants of Hurricane Ida proved in Tennessee and the New York City region recently. Before moving anywhere, check the address where you intend to live on RiskFactor.com to see the risk from rising water. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency also offers maps of locations that are threatened by flooding and flash floods.
The extreme rainfall events that are becoming more common in the era of climate change can turn a small stream or a dry gully into a torrent. Look around any location you are considering to see if there is evidence of an inactive water course. Is there a gully or canyon up the hill from the home? A sudden rainstorm or spring runoff could turn these innocuous geological features into threats to the home. For example, bone-dry Phoenix sees regular flash floods, and 13% of homes in the area are at-risk. Twenty percent of homes in Los Angeles and 19% of Boise’s homes are regularly threatened by flash flooding.
Avoid the Wildland Urban Interface
Finally, if you are craving a move to the woods far uphill and inland, there is another concern: wildfire. Over the past 30 years, more than 12.6 million homes have been built in the wildland urban interface (WUI), largely forested areas where homes will be more threatened by wildfire every year that climate change continues. These homes are often surrounded by trees and dry vegetation that should be cleared at least 300 feet from the home on every side, but seldom are.
This means increasing fire risk for 46 million homes, 38% of the 120.7 million households in the U.S. FEMA reports that more than 3,000 homes are lost annually to fire in the WUI. It is not a Western phenomenon only — Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania fill out the top-five states after California facing rising fire risk because of building up against or near woodlands.
Climate change requires rethinking all the assumptions about growth and where we live. These guidelines can help you assess your choices, but your own priorities and values will ultimately decide where and how you live. Downsizing your home will reduce your energy use and, by extension, your carbon emissions. Living in a city or any community with robust public transportation can also help alleviate your impact. But there is one thing that is certain: None of us can escape from climate change, so it is time to begin planning to adapt.