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Research & Tools > Climate Analysis

Part 1: Assessing Climate Impact: Themes and Observations

This section provides a summary of a broad-scope literature review which establishes that climate change concerns will increasingly drive internal US migration, identifies Central Appalachia as possible important site of in-migration at the national scale, and begins to elucidate some of the challenges and opportunities for the region represented by these changing demographics and climate change impacts.

As the direct impacts of climate change become more dire and begin to compound, more attention is being paid to which communities and regions of the United States may be relatively more resilient with regard to climate change and the ability to adapt. Several factors suggest that Central Appalachia could play an outsized role in the United States’ national climate adaptation in the coming years.

Centrally located along the eastern seaboard yet far enough inland to protect against major Atlantic storms, Central Appalachia boasts a temperate climate buffered against extreme heat by elevation and plentiful rainfall, a burgeoning sustainable agriculture sector, and available property at prices lower than the more heavily populated coasts – factors that make the region an attractive place for investment as a hedge against looming climate shocks.

However, to date, the area most commonly identified as an ideal location within the US for in-migration and overall resilience to climate change is the Great Lakes region. Without question, the post-industrial cities of the Great Lakes region represent opportunities for more rapid urbanization in the decades to come given the large-scale infrastructure already in place in addition to geophysical considerations such as abundant fresh water and comparatively mild summer temperatures. While much popular and academic literature omits Appalachia as a site for in-migration, this analysis makes the case that it should be not only considered, but made a priority for investment.

Domestic Climate Migration: Refuge and Resilience

First, it is necessary to establish that climate change concerns will become a primary driver of where Americans choose to live. It is widely recognized that globally poor and rural populations face the brunt of climate impacts currently and will continue to do so. Yet, it can be difficult to see the influence of concerns over climate change impacts on internal US migration today. In fact, the opposite appears to be true at the macro level, as many of the nation’s fastest-growing cities are located within areas at the greatest risk of climate change impacts (Clark et al., 2022).

The “Sunbelt” region of the United States, including the desert Southwest, Texas, and the Gulf Coast region, has accounted for a staggering 75% of US population growth in the last decade, according to real estate research group Clarion Partners. The Sunbelt’s in-migration has been driven by economic opportunity and favorable climate conditions, but climate change impacts threaten both of these. The impacts of climate change on economic growth for the Sunbelt region are projected to be severely damaging due to a confluence of factors, including increased mortality, property damages, lost productivity, higher energy costs, and lower agricultural yields (Hsiang et al., 2017). These economic damages are visualized in the map found in Figure 1.

In contrast, the Appalachian region aligns with much of the Northern US in its likelihood to experience economic growth as a result of climate change-related impacts. That economic growth is tied largely to shifting demographics and in migration, including more businesses relocating to regions that are comparatively better suited to withstand and adapt to our changing climate, as well as changes to energy costs and agriculture yields (Hsiang et al., 2017).

Figure 1. Projected economic damages at the county level as percent of GDP in the US from 2080-2099 (Hsiang et al., 2017). Shared with permission from AAAS.

It is reasonable to expect then that the current trend of mass migration into the Sunbelt will at some point cease and then reverse. This could happen rather abruptly given that real estate markets are subject to runs and panics. Beyond that, comprehensive homeowner’s insurance coverage for flooding and other climate shocks can be incredibly expensive and are increasingly being denied for climate disaster-prone areas. This is in large part because insurance policies are increasingly incongruous with the nature of climate shocks across the country. For example, in Eastern Kentucky, the overwhelming majority of homes impacted by the flooding were not in historic flood plains, but are adjacent to small creeks where intensive flash flooding occurred.

Moreover, data from government and independent nonprofit organizations show that the majority of flood-impacted homes in several recent disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey and Superstorm Sandy, sit outside historic floodplains. Traditional federal flood risk maps are made using historical climate records, and do not account for climate change projections including increasingly severe and frequent extreme rainfall events (Kuta, 2022).

First Street Foundation, a non-profit research and technology group, in collaboration with several major academic research institutions, has built a comprehensive, peer-reviewed property level flood risk model of the United States that includes climate change forecasting in their models. This granular flood risk data, as well as similar modeling data of wildfire and extreme heat risks, is available to the public through the Risk Factor online tool at (First Street Foundation, 2023).

Additionally, the same low taxes and lack of government involvement that has attracted so many businesses and migrants to the Sunbelt in the first place may contribute to a lack of resilient infrastructure, which could prove extremely costly as the impacts of climate change accelerate and compound.

It is crucial that Appalachian communities not follow the same laissez faire approach of government towards the impending effects of climate change. Instead, adaptation must be intentional and proactive to develop resilience before it is needed, not after the damage is done. The relatively favorable geophysical properties of the region alone will not suffice to protect against increasingly disruptive climate impacts.

While the macro level trend suggests that climate change has not yet fundamentally altered internal migration patterns in the United States, a closer look at individual markets reveals there is already concern among real estate investors.

To date, the largest and most frequently cited study of the effects of climate change concerns on property values is one conducted by online real estate market company Zillow. That study compared the selling prices of similar homes at slightly different elevations, and therefore with differing levels of vulnerability to sea level rise, within given neighborhoods of the Miami-Dade County (MDC) market. The study found a positive correlation between elevation and selling prices for similar properties, signaling that the effect on the market is already detectable in the data, which supports abundant anecdotal evidence (Rao, 2017). More recently, a national survey conducted by Forbes Home found that nearly a third of American respondents who moved homes in 2022 cited climate change as a reason for their move (Allen, 2022).

After establishing that climate change impacts will increasingly drive migration patterns in the United States, the relevant next question is, “Where will people go?” In the available literature, both popular and academic, the most common answer by far is the Great Lakes region of the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Broadly speaking, this is due to natural factors such as availability of freshwater, mild warm-season temperatures, and distance from the rising seas and tropical cyclones, as well as ample physical and social infrastructure already in place dating from the height of the industrial manufacturing era.

Cities such as Buffalo, NY, and Detroit, MI, are well-positioned to accept a relatively large increase in population. When associate professor of real estate at Tulane University Jesse Keenan recently provided financial news outlet CNBC with a list of the top 10 “climate haven” cities in the United States, nine of them were in the Great Lakes area… The one notable outlier being Asheville, NC. Keenan’s inclusion of a mountain city points to the important fact that Appalachian cities and towns will become increasingly relevant to the nation’s adaptation to climate change. This is especially true given the region’s geographic proximity to the Gulf Coast and Deep South states, which consistently rank among the most at-risk to climate change-related negative impacts. In addition to Asheville, one may also expect to hear cities such as Knoxville, TN, Morgantown, WV, and many other localities of Central Appalachia discussed as ideal places to relocate for those seeking areas more resilient to climate disruptions. A recent article from the Yale School of the Environment includes Appalachia in the shortlist of increasingly popular climate destinations: “As wildfires worsen and sea levels rise, a small but growing number of Americans are choosing to move to places such as New England or the Appalachian Mountains that are seen as safe havens from climate change. Researchers say this phenomenon will intensify in the coming decades” (Hurdle, 2023).

While no place is immune to damaging climate change impacts and related societal challenges, the fact remains that the direct geophysical impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed. Further, the ability of cities and communities to adapt to those impacts also varies widely.

Stated simply, when it comes to the impacts of climate change, some places are better positioned than others. The term “receiver places” was coined by urbanist theorists to describe cities and towns, communities, and neighborhoods of various scales that may expect in-migration related to climate change.

To empirically identify receiver geographies, PLACE Initiative in collaboration with ProPublica and Four Twenty Seven created a weighted meta-analysis using a set of nine climate risk factors to determine a county-level risk score (PLACE Initiative, 2022). Only those counties assigned a score of 0-2, or the lowest climate risk, are considered to be receiving geographies and are depicted in blue on the map of the contiguous United States found in Figure 2 below. Those counties with a score of 3 are considered marginal “receiving geographies” and are depicted in green. All other counties, or those receiving scores of 4 or higher, are considered “sending geographies,” meaning that they are considered by the analysis to be at a high enough level of climate risk that they may expect to lose population due to the impacts of climate change.

When looking at the PLACE Initiative map, the Appalachian region clearly stands out. Very broadly speaking, the receiving geographies fall into one of two categories, one of those being counties in states that border Canada and/or in the Great Lakes region, and the other category being the counties of Central and Northern Appalachia.

Figure 2. Map of US counties identified as “receiving geographies,” which are projected to gain population as a result of climate change (PLACE Initiative, 2022).

Climate Gentrification in Small Towns and Rural Places

As Americans begin to migrate from more heavily impacted regions across the Southeastern US and coastal regions, they’re likely to travel towards northern, inland states, or to the much closer Central Appalachian region. A great many are likely to opt for the latter. This prospect raises the emerging issue of “climate gentrification” (Nathan, 2019), a phenomenon in which individuals of higher socio-economic status site their primary residences or investment properties in areas that are perceived to be in less danger from direct climate change impacts, in turn driving up property values and taxes in those areas while impacting the existing social and cultural makeup (Payne, 2019).

A fast-growing remote worker population and the COVID-19 pandemic have added to ex-urbanization and amenity migration to create a situation where certain regions, including parts of Appalachia, are experiencing growth rates unseen since the coal and industrial booms of the mid-twentieth century.

Given the added pressure of climate migration on top of these circumstances, how well or poorly communities in Appalachia adapt to the challenges and opportunities presented by in-migration in the present and near future may well define the region for a generation or more.

One important factor that could exacerbate the effects of climate gentrification is the simple fact that the mountainous terrain of the region makes construction of all kinds relatively difficult compared to the Sun Belt and other fast growing housing markets in the US. This includes new housing construction and other physical infrastructure build out to support a growing population. One practical consequence could be a housing supply that is quickly and increasingly exceeded by demand, causing sharp rises in rent prices, home selling prices, and property taxes. Marginalized individuals and communities could be unable to afford rent or be coerced into selling as their previously inexpensive housing becomes increasingly desirable, forcing those previous inhabitants into the new margins—i.e., areas that are at higher risk of negative climate impacts.

Assessing Risks and Opportunities in the Mountain South

The emerging consensus that Central Appalachia is relatively well-positioned geographically with regard to climate change impacts is broadly backed up by climate science. This research largely uses Western North Carolina (WNC) as a proxy for the broader Central Appalachia region. The 2020 North Carolina Climate Science Report (NCCSR) found that, while there has been a general trend of warming temperatures in Western North Carolina in recent years, particularly an increase in the number of warm nights, these trends have been notably less severe than in the United States as a whole, and relatively mild compared to projections for the Deep South and Gulf States.

This is not to say that the region is in any way immune to climate change: An observed warming trend in recent decades is projected to continue into the future, and of particular concern is the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events that the region may expect to experience (Kunkel et. al., 2020).

While changes to the hydrologic cycle and precipitation patterns over the mountains are particularly difficult to model and project, the simple fact that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture means that it is very likely that the region will experience increased frequency of extreme precipitation events as warming increases. Changes to precipitation patterns are not entirely unipolar, instead manifesting as more frequent extremes in both rainfall and drought. Along with more flooding events, wildfires too are increasing in severity, frequency, duration, and range across the nation, with the change strongly correlated to climate change. This is also true in Central and Southern Appalachia.

Modeling done by the USDA Forest Service projects a 236% increase in median area burned by lightning-caused wildfires in the region by 2060 compared to 2020, highlighting the need for proactive land and fire management practices (James et al., 2020). In addition to localized fire hazard risks, smoke from very large fires is affecting vast territories and negatively impacting public health in myriad ways.

Both warmer temperatures and more extreme rainfall pose challenges for communities’ infrastructure. Warmer nights and more hot days mean that a region that has historically not relied heavily on air conditioning will increasingly need to do so.

This will require expensive structural retrofits to better handle the heat, leading to increased energy demands on the electric grid to run more air conditioners. Additionally, heat stress has serious negative impacts on public health, including exacerbating air quality issues. Extreme rainfall also requires communities to strengthen infrastructure to account for more severe and frequent flooding, including in areas not previously considered to be at high flood risk (Harvey, 2022). This includes the expansion of green and blue infrastructure (utilizing natural features such floodplains, wetlands, and existing streams in water management strategies) along with updates to planning, zoning, and building codes. Additionally, the mountainous Appalachian region must prepare for increased landslide risks.

The map below outlines self-reported damage to homes from the July 2022 flooding in Eastern Kentucky, which was caused by 11 inches of rain that fell in under 6 hours causing unprecedented flooding. This data shows that the majority of flood damage occurred in low lying areas outside of historic flood zones. This not only shows the evolving nature of climate shocks in the region, but also outlines the pressing need to revise a variety of public policy, community engagement, and investment priorities to advance climate resilience efforts moving forward. Simply put, the rules as we know them don’t fully apply anymore.

Figure 3. Self-reported damages to homes from 2022 flooding in Eastern Kentucky outline how the majority of flood damages are not located in federal flood zones (Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, 2022).

In addition to adaptation, the region offers important opportunities for climate mitigation, as the region is currently estimated to store more than half of the eastern region’s above ground carbon. The Nature Conservancy has identified the preservation of Appalachian forests and habitats as crucial to protecting biodiversity. As a great number of species of flora and fauna are beginning to shift their ranges poleward as a result of rising temperatures, the higher elevation of the Appalachian range acts as a “virtual superhighway for nature” (The Nature Conservancy, 2022).

Invest Appalachia is committed to continued research and exploration in the areas outlined in this report. Our next step is to begin work alongside partners. Our deepest hope is that this analysis contributes to a regional response that will sustain our region’s land, people, culture, and economies for generations to come. We welcome any and all partners in this dialogue and this shared pursuit.

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