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Could That Dream Beachfront Property Turn Into a Nightmare?

Peter Hemple looks at the potential impact of climate change on real estate

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coastline in 2017, displaced residents flocked inland, trying to rebuild their lives in the disaster's aftermath. However, within decades, the same thing could happen on a much larger scale, according to the recent study by the University of Southern California's (USC) School of Engineering. The study was the first to use machine learning to project migration patterns resulting from a sea level rise.

The researchers found that the impact of rising oceans will ripple across the country – beyond coastal areas at risk of flooding – as large numbers of affected people move inland. In the US alone, it estimated that 13m people could be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels by 2100. As a result, cities throughout the country would have to grapple with an influx of new populations.  

Even if these predictions turn out to be only 50% correct, the impact on property markets in the US would be enormous, with landlords either winning big, or losing everything, depending on where they had invested in property.

“Sea level rise will affect every county in the US, including inland areas,” says Bistra Dilkina, assistant professor in computer science at USC and associate director of USC’s Center for AI for Society. “We hope that this research will empower urban planners and local decision-makers to prepare to accept populations displaced by sea level rise. Our findings indicate that everybody should care about sea-level rise, whether they live on the coast or not. This is a global issue.”

Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and other land-locked cities will be among the most popular choices for relocation, according to Dilkina's team. Their model also predicts that 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: added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the expansion of seawater as it warms. Within the next few decades, hundreds of thousands homes on the US coast are expected to be flooded. By the end of the century, a global sea level rise of up to two metres would redraw the coastline of southern Florida, parts of North Carolina and Virginia and most of Boston and New Orleans.

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