Climate change could trigger tropical evacuations, researchers advise

June 10, 2016 by Kathleen Maclay
Climate change could trigger tropical evacuations, researchers advise
The map above, contained in the Hsiang-Sobel paper, reflects a logarithm calculating the minimum distance an organism must travel to maintain the average temperature of its original tropical location. Credit: University of California - Berkeley

Global warming by just 2 degrees Celsius is likely to force some tropical plant, animal and human populations to relocate hundreds of miles from their current homes this century, according to research published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor's Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and Adam Sobel, a professor of applied physics and math at Columbia University, foresee dramatic population declines in Mexico, Central America, Africa, India and other tropical locales if ecosystems or humans move due to .

In their analysis, the pair used a model to demonstrate how dynamics in the tropics can dramatically magnify the consequences of climate change as it is experienced on the ground. This means even small climate changes can have dramatic impacts.

The equator's limited options

"We're not making specific predictions about migration patterns of individual species, but the geophysical constraint is that, as the tropics get hotter, you'll have to go far, essentially leaving the tropics, to cool off," said Sobel.

Because the tropics are uniformly hot, when things get hotter by just a small amount, populations will have to move far to find relief.

Hsiang explains it with an analogy: "Imagine you have a fixed budget you can spend on your apartment and rents are the same throughout your entire neighborhood. If all the rents go up, even by just a little bit, you might have to move very far to find a new place you can afford."

Flamingos flying over the tropics are among the many species that may be forced to migrate as temperatures climb even moderately in the tropics, scientists say. Credit: iStock

Hsiang and Sobel describe climate-related displacements in the tropics as "an almost complete evacuation of the equatorial band" that could impact ecosystems as well as human well-being.

A 'temperature budget'

The researchers report that some oceanic and continental populations would have to move as far as 1,000 miles or more to stay within their "temperature budget." Where do those populations end up? Simulations by the authors suggest the cooler edges of the tropics could get crowded, where populations might theoretically climb by 300 percent or higher. At those densities, disease and conflict over resources, among other issues, would bring their own complications.

"We know that people and species of all kinds move for all kinds of reasons, not just to stay at the same temperature," said Sobel. "At the same time, the uniformity of temperatures is a basic fact about the temperature structure of Earth, and still will be as the climate changes. It seems like a very basic constraint that ought to be understood as we think about populations."

Professor Solomon Hsiang, director of UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Lab. Credit: Brittany Murphy

Problems with staying put

"Another real problem arises when populations can't move, but instead have to stay put and suffer the consequences of a new climate," Hsiang said. "This can happen when human migrants run into political borders or when species physically can't move fast enough." The recent catastrophic bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is an example of the latter.

To arrive at their findings, Hsiang and Sobel compared today's temperatures with climate model projections where Earth's average temperature rose by 2 degrees Celsius this century. Even under these modest climate changes, considered "optimistic" compared to business-as-usual forecasts, the authors found that movements could be dramatic. The tropics, they said, are unique in this extreme response to limited warming.

The authors are cautious in applying their findings to , since moving is only one of many strategies humans will use to cope with warming. Nonetheless, they note that extraordinary human migrations cannot be ruled out, pointing to the American Dust Bowl as a familiar and dramatic recent experience.

Explore further: Tropical species are especially vulnerable to climate change, according to researchers

More information: Solomon M. Hsiang et al. Potentially Extreme Population Displacement and Concentration in the Tropics Under Non-Extreme Warming, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep25697

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Knowledge gap on the origin of sex

May 26, 2017

There are significant gaps in our knowledge on the evolution of sex, according to a research review on sex chromosomes from Lund University in Sweden. Even after more than a century of study, researchers do not know enough ...

The high cost of communication among social bees

May 26, 2017

(Phys.org)—Eusocial insects are predominantly dependent on chemosensory communication to coordinate social organization and define group membership. As the social complexity of a species increases, individual members require ...

Darwin was right: Females prefer sex with good listeners

May 26, 2017

Almost 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed a little-known prediction from his theory of sexual selection, researchers have found that male moths with larger antennae are better at detecting female signals.

Why communication is vital—even among plants and funghi

May 26, 2017

Plant scientists at the University of Cambridge have found a plant protein indispensable for communication early in the formation of symbiosis - the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and fungi. Symbiosis significantly ...

9 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rodkeh
1 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2016
a
philstacy9
1 / 5 (3) Jun 10, 2016
philstacy9
1 / 5 (3) Jun 10, 2016
Maggnus
4.7 / 5 (12) Jun 10, 2016
Coincidentally, the tropical areas of the planet also have many of the poorest populations on the planet. While some adjustment could be expected in the way of structures for a small portion of those peoples, the majority will be simply unable to afford the cost of mitigating the temperature and so will try to migrate.

We are seeing some of the effects in India and Pakistan already. The scary part of that, is that both of those countries have nuclear weapons. If they decide they need to move people so they can survive, it could escalate pretty fast - especially when you consider the capabilities of some of their more powerful neighbors.

There is an ancient Chinese curse - may you line in interesting times. Our grandchildren will certainly be living in such.
antigoracle
1.6 / 5 (7) Jun 10, 2016
There is an ancient Chinese curse....

LOL.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 12, 2016
Anti, what is your game? You are obviously wrong, yet you persist in this silly stuff.

You do not "believe" AGW, yet I'll bet you got fooled, suckered by Bush and Blair into going after them old "WMD!", didn't you? What does it take for you to "believe" something? Does it have to fit your prejudices?
ski137
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 12, 2016
Not sure that using nukes to clear out your new home is such a good idea. But there is always the attitude that if we can't have it, no one can.
leetennant
5 / 5 (5) Jun 15, 2016
Coincidentally, the tropical areas of the planet also have many of the poorest populations on the planet. While some adjustment could be expected in the way of structures for a small portion of those peoples, the majority will be simply unable to afford the cost of mitigating the temperature and so will try to migrate.

We are seeing some of the effects in India and Pakistan already. The scary part of that, is that both of those countries have nuclear weapons. If they decide they need to move people so they can survive, it could escalate pretty fast - especially when you consider the capabilities of some of their more powerful neighbors.

There is an ancient Chinese curse - may you line in interesting times. Our grandchildren will certainly be living in such.


1 billion climate refugees. And that's a conservative estimate. Once the Himalayan glaciers go, that will be a billion people migrating right there and that's before we get the other affects of climate change.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 15, 2016
Great market for Trump Bottled Water.

Not too far for him to stoop. In fact, he might have to reach up.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.