Flooding at the south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach during a king tide in 2015. Photo by Chris Helmer / City of Imperial Beach

Rising sea levels could trigger a mass migration that would force more than 13 million people living along the coastal areas of the United States to relocate inland by 2100, according to a new study by USC researchers.

The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE this week, found the impact of rising oceans will ripple across the country, beyond coastal areas at risk of flooding, as affected people move inland.

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast in 2017, displaced residents flocked inland, trying to rebuild their lives in the disaster’s aftermath. Within decades, the same thing could happen at a much larger scale due to rising sea levels, according to USC Computer Science Assistant Professor Bistra Dilkina.

The study is the first to use machine learning to project migration patterns resulting from sea-level rise.

In the U.S. alone, 13 million people could be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels in the next eight decades. As a result, cities throughout the country will grapple with new populations. Effects could include more competition for jobs, increased housing prices, and more pressure on infrastructure networks.

“Sea level rise will affect every county in the U.S., including inland areas,” said Dilkina, the study’s corresponding author, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor in computer science at USC and associate director of USC’s Center for AI for Society.

“We hope this research will empower urban planners and local decision- makers to prepare to accept populations displaced by sea-level rise,” she said. “Our findings indicate that everybody should care about sea-level rise, whether they live on the coast or not. This is a global impact issue.”

According to the research team, most popular relocation choices will include landlocked cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas. The model also predicts suburban and rural areas in the Midwest will experience a disproportionately large influx of people relative to their smaller local populations.

Sea-level rise is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of sea water as it warms. Within just a few decades, hundreds of thousands homes on the U.S. coastline will be flooded. In fact, by the end of the century, six feet of ocean-level rise would redraw the coasts of southern Florida, parts of North Carolina and Virginia and most of Boston and New Orleans, according to the study.

— City News Service

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