Rochester may double in population in the next 50 years as the climate warms

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ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) — Scientists are predicting a massive population shift to more livable climates as climate change continues to impact the United States and the world. One of those more livable places happens to be Rochester. While not immune to climate change, the Great Lakes region and the Northeast will have a much more favorable climate in 50-100 years based on current projections.

Here is an interview with Dr. Lee Murray, a professor of Atmospheric sciences at the University of Rochester. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 2013 and focuses his research on global atmospheric modeling of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

What are some of your initial reactions to the record wildfire season of 2020?

“Any given extreme weather event, like what’s happening in California or now that we’re back into the Greek alphabet for the first time since 2005 with the hurricanes, any individual weather event by itself is not evidence of climate change. It’s when things begin to occur more and more frequently over longer periods of time that we begin to see that evidence. That is precisely what we’re beginning to see. In many weather phenomenon, [for example] fires, it’s a complex problem. It’s not simply the changing climate. It’s also related to forest management practices and the number of people that have moved into fire prone regions in the past century, but climate change is definitely contributing. We expect, based on all the model forecasts, the extreme heat and drought in the United States to get even worse in the coming century. There’s a very good probability that the wildfire problem is going to continue to get worse in the Western United States.”

What about Hurricanes?

“On the other side of the country with the hurricanes, we’re still not  sure as climate scientists precisely how hurricanes will change because there are so many different factors that go into the creation of a single hurricane, and each of those individual factors are going to change in different ways going into the future. The best science at the moment seems to suggest that we are going to see a decrease in hurricane frequency, 2020 aside, but the storms that we do see are going to be stronger, they are going to travel slower, they are going to dump more rain on the coastlines. Places like the southeast United States, and even up through the Mid-Atlantic and coastal New England are going to be severely impacted in ways that historically we have not seen in the United States.”

What will Rochester look like in 30 years? In 60 years?

“I went in and looked at a recent study from Nature, and they’ve created an interactive website where you can plug in your city and see what is your closest city analog in 2080 going to look like. Some of the cities are quite dramatic. You have New York City going to somewhere in Alabama. For Rochester, it was somewhat less dramatic in a geographic difference. Our closest analog would basically be Philadelphia, which is a much more humid, warmer city. It’s not terribly far graphically, but you have places like Tampa, Florida, that are going to start to look much more like Cancun, Mexico. The prediction that we would be more like Philadelphia was based on the average of many different climate models. Some individual predictions had Rochester basically getting the climate of Arkansas. Overall, on average, a roughly four degrees warmer climate, but also a wetter climate. Wetter summers, wetter winters. More rain and more snow assuming it’s cold enough for snow.”

“We have mild summers, mild-ish winters. We have enough water from precipitation to grow crops without irrigation. This is a very ideal place to live and the forecasts in the coming century are going to make Rochester even more amenable from an agricultural perspective.”

What has migration looked like in the United States and how will it look in the future?

“I don’t know exactly when we might see migrations and exactly who would be the first wave. We’ve already seen mass climate related migrations in this country over the last century after we invented air conditioners ironically in Buffalo. That enabled everyone to move in large numbers to the south, and when we as a federal and state government started spending lots of money to send water over tremendous distances out west, that enabled people to move into deserts like in Arizona and California. That was because that was deemed a favorable climate when coupled with technology that made what was traditionally not a favorable climate more bearable.

Now as that climate is becoming even harsher, if the technology can’t keep up with that, then we’ll probably see a migration out of the sun belts back into places that are climatically more favorable where people first moved into the United States because we have the largest source of fresh water in the world at our foot steps. We have mild summers, mild-ish winters. We have enough water from precipitation to grow crops without irrigation. This is a very ideal place to live and the forecasts in the coming century are going to make Rochester even more amenable from an agricultural perspective. We’ll have longer growing seasons.

Some of the crops that we’re used to growing might not fare as well. We might have to transition into different agricultural practices, but we are forecast to at least improve in that regard, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to still try our hardest to mitigate climate change because we’re just going to be relatively a more favorable part of the United States to live in.”

What type of challenges will Rochester face with a changing climate?

“We’re still going to be susceptible to heat waves, to extreme precipitation events, both in the summer but especially in the winter. You probably have noticed in these past few winters we have been in this see saw pattern between record warm and then record cold. The climate community is beginning to suspect that that pattern is going to increase going into the future due to the break down of the temperature gradient between the tropics and the poles since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet due to the melting ice. “ 

The climate community suspects that this increased see-saw pattern where we are going from extreme warm to extreme cold periods in winters here in Rochester will continue going into the future.” 

Places like Phoenix, Arizona continue to grow while New York State numbers are on the decline. Do you think there is a breaking point where those numbers shift?

“As it was when people first moved to the sun belt, it was a gradual transition.There will probably be an inflection point at some point, but I don’t think that there will be any single breaking point.

I think that maybe if there is some kind of extreme weather event, like another Katrina decimates New Orleans. We saw a lot of people leave New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina who never came back. Following individual extreme events like that, quite possible people will leave, but I think it will in general, just because climate change itself is such a gradual process that it’s really hard for us as people who live in the moment to detect these long term shifts. Even those of us who have lived in Western New York most of our lives, it’s hard to notice the changes that have happened. Although if you go talk to my parents, they’ll talk about how they’ve noticed that there isn’t as much snow in the winter as there used to be when they were kids, but all of that is still anecdotal. It’s very hard for humans to perceive these very long term climate changes.” 

“We certainly have the infrastructure, the housing, the roads, the cultural institutions to host a city that is twice our size because we used to be twice our size.”

Do we have the means to accept large population growth in the coming decades?

“Absolutely. Between 1950 and 2020 we’ve lost 40 percent of our population. The joke is it takes no more than 20 minutes to get anywhere in Rochester because we have the interstate highway system for a city almost twice our size. We’re taking down highways because we don’t need them anymore. We certainly have the infrastructure, the housing, the roads, the cultural institutions to host a city that is twice our size because we used to be twice our size. But that is also related to some of the risk of what we’ll see in Rochester due to changing climate in the future because we’re not immune to climate change despite the fact that we have been better off than other parts of the country. 

Most of our housing was built 50-100 years ago for a climate 50 – 100 years ago, so we’re not used to extreme heat waves. Most of our houses weren’t designed for efficient cooling in summer, most don’t have air conditioning in them, and so the northern cities that people may be moving back to are going to be particularly susceptible to heat waves in the summer. “

Where are we headed from here?

“We have a lot of legacy warming that is going to catch up to us. Right now, for example, the Paris Climate Agreement based on if everyone cuts future emissions and restricts future emissions, we’re still going to be in for an inevitable two degrees celsius, four degrees fahrenheit, global warming. That’s the best case scenario. We do have a lot of power over, can we limit it to two degrees? Or is it going to go up to eight degrees or worse. Based on our actions now, we needed to start years ago, so anything we do today is going to improve the situation going into the future.”

Are you hopeful?

“I am cautiously optimistic. I certainly hope that we re-join the Paris Agreement as soon as possible and that we work together as a global community to address, I mean obviously COVID has a lot of attention because of it’s short term impacts, but aside from COVID, future climate change is going to be the greatest threat that our species sees in the coming century and it’s only going to get worse as the century goes on. I’m optimistic in the end that humanity will do the right thing.

In the United States, we have a lot of resources, we have a lot of space. Floridians can move inland. People in Arizona can move to a wetter climate. Globally it becomes a bigger risk because of the geopolitical dynamics of borders, but I’m hopeful that we’ll do the right thing and help those less fortunate deal with the inevitable sea-level rise and temperature changes and precipitation pattern shifts that might devastate agriculture regions around the world.” 

What about other regions?

“It’s not just a domestic issue. One of the most pressing humanitarian crises that’s going to happen even sooner in the coming decades is from places like Bangladesh, where you have over 150 million people living in basically the Mississippi River Delta equivalent of Asia.  The citizens of Bangladesh basically contributed nothing to climate change from the greenhouse gas perspective, yet they’re going to be one of the first countries that bears the extreme brunt of sea-level change. Floridians could move to Rochester if sea level rises. The Bangladeshi people have nowhere to go within their own country, and it’s going to become a growing humanitarian crisis in the coming century of who is going to take in these people who contributed nothing to climate change.”

Who will move?

“I’m not an expert on human migration. Yes there’s definitely an environmental and social justice aspace to all of this that the communities that are going to be the most negatively impacted first are the ones that are porrer, traditionally communities of color. Those are the ones who precisely lack the means to move to a new location. It is probably that the wealthiest individuals who will be the ones that have the greater ability to move, but they might also be the ones that have the greater ability to build a seawall around their house or deal with storm damage and repair it.”

The idea for this interview came from a New York Times article about climate migration.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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