Climate change is pushing people and wildlife to new habitats

A man walks along a flooded street in Miami Beach in this photo from September 2015. Photo: Associated Press
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen and Robert C. Jones Jr.

A man walks along a flooded street in Miami Beach in this photo from September 2015. Photo: Associated Press

Climate change is pushing people and wildlife to new habitats

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen and Robert C. Jones Jr.
Experts in climate change and its effects on fish and humanity spoke about their latest findings during the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s third virtual Climate Café.

The warming ocean temperatures prompted by global warming are already changing the areas where fish congregate. And sea level rise will likely change the landscape of communities across the world, as people move farther inland during the next decade, researchers from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science said Wednesday.

Faculty and graduate students shared some of the latest research on climate change and how its effects are forcing a migration of people and animals during the school’s third Climate Café webinar, “Economic and Societal Impacts of Climate Change.”

Research Professor David Die, who studies the effect of climate change on global fish populations, said that their models are predicting that wild fish—and the boats of fisherman that work to catch them—will move closer to the north and south poles and farther from the equator because of warming ocean conditions. Wild fish will also be scarcer, which will undoubtedly affect global seafood markets, he said.

“Our current models predict an average to small decline in global seafood production by 2050 but more declines in the tropics,” said Die, showing statistics of  a 3 percent to 5 percent decline. Die is also the associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, a collaboration between Rosenstiel and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “So, seafood production will be affected largely in wild fisheries, but also in aquaculture, particularly in developing countries where sea level rise may present large challenges to those coastal enterprises,” he said.

For those who make their living selling fish, Die and his colleague, marine biology professor Beth Babcock, have developed what are called “management strategy evaluations.” These are simulations that predict how certain species of fish may be affected by climate change and help fisheries decide when to slow their intake to allow populations to reproduce.

Katharine Mach, associate professor of marine ecosystems and society who also works in the department of marine ecosystems and society, detailed her research about how climate change is affecting humans across the globe.

 “Whether it’s floods or fires in the U.S, we need to think about adaptive pathways to keep society safe that can be nimble and adaptive through time,” she said.

Mach discussed some of her research about the interaction between violence and climate change. Although the link was not exactly clear, Mach said, she learned that the hotter the temperatures, the more likely violence is to occur, particularly in places where the government is unable to suppress aggression.

“About 5 percent of conflicts today have seen climate change as an impact,” she said. “But that creeps up as temperatures rise.”

Then, Florida International University doctoral student Nadia Seeteram, who is collaborating with Mach’s Climate Risk and Preparedness research lab, discussed her research about the impacts of rising sea levels on Miami-Dade County.

Showing maps and a framework of risk, Seeteram explained that flooding from sea level rise may soon push many people to move out of areas prone to flooding, such as Miami Beach.

“Globally, sea levels are rising at a rate of about 3.6 millimeters per year,” said Seeteram, citing statistics from the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change update.

By the end of this decade, she said, we could see a foot of sea level rise, which will contribute to migration and displacement of people living near the coast. In Miami-Dade County, that displacement has already started, Seeteram added.

“What we’re beginning to see is that shift in money and flow of people to what is now considered a superior investment—higher elevated areas along the Atlantic Coastal ridge in the mainland of Miami-Dade,” she said. “The problem here is that there are already people living there.”

And residents living in marginalized communities will increasingly face the likelihood of being displaced. Seeteram suggested that Black and Hispanic communities in Miami may become the first victims of “climate gentrification,” as their long-overlooked neighborhoods become more attractive and expensive because they are located within higher-elevated areas that are more resilient to rising seas.

In many instances, those residents are part of a service class that represents about 47.8 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, but earn an annual median income of about $26,000, “which is low for a city as expensive as Miami,” said Seeteram.

With sea level projections only accelerating throughout the United States, Carolien Kraan, another graduate student working with Mach, is studying how residents and communities are working to protect themselves from sea level rise, which causes a host of problems—namely flooding and erosion.

Building higher seawalls and levees and changing our infrastructure to mitigate flooding are two ways to address the problem, she said. A third more extreme method is through managed retreat—moving people and assets out of harm’s way.

A FEMA-funded voluntary property buyout program is one way to achieve managed retreat. But the practice, which the federal agency started more than 30 years ago, has yielded some surprising results, said Kraan, a Ph.D. student in the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.

Kraan’s research team has learned that urban counties with higher population densities and higher household incomes were more likely to administer buyouts.

“We think that this has to do with capacity of those counties—those counties are bigger, wealthier, and have people that are probably more highly educated and are more likely to have people on staff that can do these kinds of projects and also have the political willingness to do them,” Kraan explained.

The group then examined neighborhoods within those counties where buyouts have occurred and found that those neighborhoods were typically low-income areas with more racially diverse residents and lower population densities than the rest of the county.

Since 1989, FEMA has bought out more than 40,000 properties, Kraan said, and managed retreat is not that uncommon. One in every three counties in the U.S. has experience with buyouts. But it’s been on a small scale, with only about 1 to 10 properties purchased per county. Kraan is now trying to determine where people who participate in buyouts relocate. Among her preliminary findings: many people move locally, within a 10-mile radius, but that they do move to homes that are no longer in high flood-risk areas.

“This is a hopeful result, as it seems like people will be staying within their community, but at a safer location,” Kraan said.

To watch a recording of the webinar, click here