How UVM research on climate migration helps inform Vermont policy

Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 4:57 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 12, 2022 at 5:37 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Which weather would you rather-- wildfires or hurricanes? People move for very personal reasons, but as our climate changes, the weather could be a driving factor we are only beginning to understand.

A UVM researcher is taking stock of human migration and how it can inform our decision-making.

“I think there are a lot of factors at play,” said Mahalia Clark of the UVM Gund Institute for Environment.

For two years, Clark has been poring over a decade of census data, from 2010 to 2020, watching as people move about the country. The main finding?

“People really seem to have been moving toward the counties with the highest probability of wildfires,” Clark said.

On the flip side, fewer Americans are moving to areas prone to hurricanes and heat waves. Clark says people likely flee hurricane-prone areas due to their widespread destructive nature, and we haven’t been short on examples of their power over the last few decades.

“So Hurricane Katrina and then we have had Harvey and Irene and Superstorm Sandy, so kind of for a longer time we have had this in the news and in the public consciousness,” Clark said.

Though wildfires aren’t new, severe drought has recently kindled several destructive wildfires that have dominated headlines.

“Bigger areas burning, more destruction from that, and it might have only more recently started to be something people are taking note of,” Clark said.

Though this research looks backward, Clark says it can help us understand trends yet to come as climate change weighs on people.

“More wildfire in the news and as it does start thinking about that threat a little more, we might start seeing people move away,” she said.

Clark says this is more than just data, they are people, and the movement of people is important for policy.

“Both ask the questions in real-time that inform policy decisions, as well as comb over the literature to inform decision-making at the state level,” said Jane Lazorchak with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Lazorchak says data-driven policy is crucial to progress, and having partners at UVM going over data locally and nationally is something incredibly beneficial here at home.

“They are helping shape us and hold us accountable, and we see that relationship with mentoring and cross-collaboration as critical to bringing people along for the work that we do,” Lazorchak said.

Back at UVM, Clark says she plans to continue studying human migration patterns, and she says as the climate out west continues to change, Vermont will continue to look inviting. But she also says she hopes this research raises a few red flags in fire-prone areas.

“It just highlights we might want to start disincentivizing people from moving to some of the highest risk areas,” Clark said.